Do we remember less from reading from a screen?

March 19th, 2012

Tyler Cowen (one of the most avid readers I know) links to a Time piece looking at just this question.

Online, I discovered that Google’s Larry Page himself had concerns about research showing that on-screen reading is measurably slower than reading on paper.

This seems like a particularly troubling trend for academia, where digital books are slowly overtaking the heavy tomes I used to lug around. On many levels, e-books seem like better alternatives to textbooks — they can be easily updated and many formats allow readers to interact with the material more, with quizzes, video, audio and other multimedia to reinforce lessons. But some studies suggest that there may be significant advantages in printed books if your goal is to remember what you read long-term.

Kate Garland, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester in England, is one of the few scientists who has studied this question and reviewed the data. She found that when the exact same material is presented in both media, there is no measurable difference in student performance.

However, there are some subtle distinctions that favor print, which may matter in the long run. In one study involving psychology students, the medium did seem to matter. “We bombarded poor psychology students with economics that they didn’t know,” she says. Two differences emerged. First, more repetition was required with computer reading to impart the same information.

Second, the book readers seemed to digest the material more fully. Garland explains that when you recall something, you either “know” it and it just “comes to you” — without necessarily consciously recalling the context in which you learned it — or you “remember” it by cuing yourself about that context and then arriving at the answer. “Knowing” is better because you can recall the important facts faster and seemingly effortlessly.

I seldom read anything on paper. In fact, I haven’t even plugged in my printer at home since I moved to Louisville some 7 months ago.  My desk at home is entirely paper-free. I only read files electronically. At work, I have to print stuff out at the behest of my employer, one of the most-read people I have ever met, who demands reading on paper. I can’t stand paper. I think, after years of working with so many monitors and screens, I have effectively trained my mind to work better with electronic displays.

I wonder how my students will react to my preference for electronic content. Of course, they are free to print anything out if they do not like reading stuff on the screen.