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Learning, Psychology, Uncategorized

Reading on screen or on paper: is there a difference?

woman in grey jacket sits on bed uses grey laptop

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I do my best to read things on a computer screen. I started this for a few reasons: 1) financial savings – I’m not paying for ink or paper, although I am potentially paying for more electricity; 2) less paper use, although the question of whether paper or electricity is the better choice environmentally does live in the back of my brain, especially living in coal powered Alberta; 3) less waste, this goes along with less paper but I can store way more papers on my computer than I can in my home; 4) easier to search, it’s much easier to go through my digital database than it was to go through paper in binders. I could probably keep going but I think you probably get the picture. The other day though, I was reading a particularly poorly written paper and seriously contemplated printing it out. I felt like if I could physically hold the pages and perhaps mark up the text with a variety of pens I might get more out of it than I was getting. I opted not to print but mostly because in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t that important that I got every last idea from the paper. But this is an argument I used to hear a lot: “I just understand more when I print it out” or “it’s easier for me to read on paper.” I say used to because I have noticed that this does seem to be changing. It appears to me, that the students I have now are better able to read things on-screen than students several years ago.

I’ve looked into the differences between reading on screen versus on paper before and often found that reading comprehension was better on-paper but I had to wonder if this would always be the case? If it was an unchanging reality than, to be honest people today are in trouble as more and more of our reading occurs on screen. That can’t possibly mean that we are just going to have diminishing comprehension and there’s nothing we can do about it. Therefore, I was interested to read Kong, Seo, and Zhai’s (2018) meta-analysis of reading performance on screen and on paper.

Kong, Seo, and Zhai reviewed 17 papers that compared the two styles in terms of reading speed and reading comprehension. Reading speed was the same between the two (I realize this isn’t actually reading speed but I’d like to point out that it typically takes way less time to get an electronic source than it does to get the equivalent paper source so there is a difference in overall time). On paper reading comprehension was higher compared to on screen; however, this difference became less pronounced when the authors compared studies prior to 2013 with studies post 2013. Not surprising to me, the difference in reading comprehension is becoming less pronounced.

This is definitely a topic that needs more research. We need to know how different technologies and different reader experience affects reading on screen versus on paper. We need to know what the optimal format to support reading comprehension on screen might be; for example, does double spacing text help? Is a certain type of font better? Does scrolling through the document affect it? There are many more that I can think of. But this gives support to the students out there who are confronted by teachers and professors who question a student’s preparedness when they come to class with a form of computer instead of a printed document. And yes, I have talked to faculty who are concerned that students aren’t printing out course documents.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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