Does reading comprehension suffer when learners switch from paper to screens? This question has been studied from multiple angles, with varied findings. There’s no definitive answer, but for eLearning professionals, a better question might be: How can eLearning design maximize learning potential and mitigate potential barriers to comprehension?
Anyone considering implementing eLearning—or converting existing training to eLearning—should consider the differences in how learners take in and process information when using digital means (like desktop or tablet computers) versus reading printed material, and design accordingly!
Learners perform better on paper
So, what are those differences? A 2013 study compared participants’ reading comprehension when reading on paper versus on computer screens. It found that people performed better on reading comprehension tests when they read from paper. The researchers offered several possible explanations for why this is the case.
- Scrolling: The researchers cite several studies that support the contention that scrolling interferes with reading comprehension because it affects the readers’ mental representation of the text. In simple English, that means that people often recall text by picturing where on the page they saw it. When learners scroll through multiple screens of text, the text is not fixed in a location, and the learners cannot form a mental picture of where a specific passage is located, as they can when reading on paper.
- Partial or entire text: When holding books or printed documents, learners can leaf through and skip from page to page—the entire text is available to them at once. When reading on digital screens, learners can only see one screen of text at a time. They lack the physicality of a book or printed document, which also gives them a tangible way to tell how far they have progressed and how much they have left to read.
- Myth of multitasking: When answering reading comprehension questions about a digital text, learners have to switch back and forth on the screen between the text and the question. This type of multitasking places additional demands on the learners, possibly interfering with comprehension of the text. Considerable research has shown that, when people think they are multitasking, they are actually switching between tasks, and they lose efficiency with each switch. But when reading a paper text, whether answering questions on a digital screen or on an additional piece of paper, learners can have both the text and the questions in front of them at the same time, so multitasking is not required.
- Bias: The researchers cite a common perception that digital media are more useful for short messages, while serious study “should” be done using paper media. Learners holding this bias are less likely to focus deeply on the material they are reading on-screen. However, this condition is difficult to study objectively or measure.
- Visual fatigue: People who spend a long time reading a tablet or computer screen often report visual fatigue or headaches, which can interfere with reading comprehension and recall, or may simply cause learners to prefer paper. Electronic readers (eReaders), such as Kindles, that use electronic ink and reflect light, rather than emitting light, cause less visual fatigue. Since most available research groups computers, tablets, and electronic readers into a single category, additional research that looks at eReaders and paper might provide useful insight.
The good news: eLearning designers can help
The good news for designers is that they can mitigate some of these factors by using sound, thoughtful design.
Take the issue of visual fatigue, for example. The quality of screens is improving constantly. Much of the research was conducted several—even 10—years ago, and improvements in screen quality have addressed some of the issues that cause visual fatigue. More importantly, the amount of customization available to learners has also increased. Well-designed eLearning allows learners to manipulate the look of a screen: Learners can often increase font size, adjust the contrast, and change colors. This is an area where instructional designers can contribute by selecting clear, easy-to-read fonts and compatible color combinations that offer sufficient contrast, making it easier for most learners to read the text, and by including options that give learners control over the appearance of text.
Instructional designers can mitigate the effects of scrolling and other navigation issues as well. Providing ample navigational cues and chunking information into logical, screen-sized segments can aid learners’ comprehension and reduce their need to scroll. Creating section and subsection titles in text, and including a navigation menu that lists and links to the sections, can make it easier for learners to both find the information they need when they need it and consume it in a logical way that aids in comprehension.
Designers can also address the question of multitasking. Many learners work on two or more screens, so allowing learners to keep multiple windows open can eliminate the need to switch back and forth. In addition, placing interactivity, such as quiz questions or check-your-knowledge exercises, close to the text they reference can aid in learner comprehension and recall by reducing the amount of switching and backtracking required. Offering exercises at multiple points in the eLearning can reinforce learning by asking learners to recall and apply information more than once.
People prefer paper
Learner preference—bias—is an important consideration. Swedish researchers Caroline Myrberg and Ninna Wiberg posit that problems with screen reading are more psychological than technological—a bias or preference for paper, rather than technical barriers to learning (see References). Even younger learners, who are regarded as digital natives, show a strong preference for reading on paper over digital screens. However, younger learners use digital media more often and for more purposes than do older learners, and education—from elementary grades through higher education—is increasingly replacing paper with digital media. Several researchers suggest that that the bias toward paper will disappear as younger generations use digital and paper media interchangeably or primarily use digital media in school.
Studies of university students bear this out: Students who are exposed to and use well-designed eLearning materials show a less-pronounced preference for paper textbooks than students who do not regularly use electronic texts.
Instructional design is a significant factor in learner preference. Myrberg and Wiberg point out that much of the text learners are asked to read on digital screens has simply been transferred from paper to digital—without using design characteristics that take advantage of the inherent features of digital media that make them valuable. Once again, designers can tackle the problem:
- Incorporating quiz questions, matching games, and other forms of interactivity with the text, rather than presenting page after page of text, then a stand-alone test, can improve comprehension and engagement.
- Hyperlinking can enhance or detract from comprehension. Hyperlinks that take learners away from the text they are reading can interfere with comprehension, as the learners are constantly interrupted during their reading. However, linked lists of resources that are presented at the end of a related text can offer additional help and information that aids comprehension.
- Younger learners expect digital experiences to be fully digital experiences—not simply digital copies of a paper page, according to Myrberg and Wiberg. This means short texts that are integrated with video, sound, quizzes, games, and other interactivity. They also want integration with social media. Research data show that learners are not simply expressing a preference for paper; they prefer paper to poorly designed digital textbooks that try to mimic paper!
- A final issue that Myrberg and Wiberg discuss is access to digital materials. Digital rights-management systems, or DRM, can make it difficult for learners to use digital media efficiently. Sharing is difficult. Sometimes, a learner’s digital rights to a text expire, and even if she can renew access, her notes and highlighting will have disappeared. Learners using paper media can highlight, write notes in the margins, dog-ear pages, insert bookmarks, and do many other things that customize the paper copy to aid their learning and retention of the material. They can share textbooks, copy articles, and look at a page together. Where highlighting and bookmarking features exist in digital media, they are often hard to use or learners do not even know they exist. As research on other digital features (such as captioning of videos) shows, learners who know that these features exist often use them and benefit from them. This is true even for features that were added to benefit learners with disabilities; many or even most of the learners who use them and benefit from them do not have disabilities.
The question of whether digital is “better” or “worse” than paper is too simplistic. Well-designed eLearning can overcome learner preference for paper and mitigate most perceived drawbacks of a digital environment.
Jabr, Ferris. “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.” Scientific American. 11 April 2013.
Hogle, Pamela. “Improve Engagement, Focus, and Comprehension with Closed Captions for eLearning Videos.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 5 January 2017.
Mangen, Anne, Bente R. Walgermo, and Kolbjorn Bronnick. “Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension.” International Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 58. January 2013.
Myrberg, Caroline, and Ninna Wiberg. “Screen vs. paper: what is the difference for reading and learning?” Insights, Vol. 28, No. 2. July 2015.
Shank, Patti. “What Do You Know: Do We Learn Less from Screens?” ATD Science of Learning Blog. 7 December 2016.