Touted as portable and interactive alternatives to print books, ebooks are gaining popularity in college classrooms. In fact, Educause Review reports that the number of college students who used eTextbooks in their studies increased from 42% to 66% over a four-year period spanning 2012-2016. Libraries are stocking up on ebooks, too: in 2017, they collectively spent 27% of their budgets on electronic materials – nearly 10% more than they budgeted five years prior. Popularity, however, does not equal efficacy, so the real question is: do ebooks help or hinder learning?
Studies suggest print books are better for learning
Recent research has demonstrated that students learn better from print books than ebooks, as evidenced by the following studies.
Print readers recall more key details than digital readers
In a University of Maryland study, undergraduates read digital and print versions of newspaper articles and book excerpts. They were then asked to predict which version they understood best, and finally tested for reading comprehension.
Most students predicted they would perform better after reading the digital versions. However, the study found that while they understood the main idea of the texts equally well regardless of medium, those who read the print versions were able to recall key details better than those who read the digital versions.
Print readers outperform ebook readers in chronological memory
In another study jointly conducted by researchers from the University of Stavanger and the French National Centre for Scientific Research, 50 24-year-old participants were asked to read a 28-page mystery story. They were divided into two groups: one read the story on a Kindle DX, the other in a printed pocketbook. Then, they were tested for reading comprehension.
Both groups performed equally well for basic comprehension, but those who read the print version outperformed ebook readers on tests related to chronology and temporality. In other words, they were better at recalling the order of events and when they occurred within the story.
The researchers concluded the difference was due to the lack of kinesthetic feedback in the digital version. Print books offer sensorimotor cues that might enhance recall.
Print enhances comprehension for texts longer than 500 words
In 2017, researchers from the University of Maryland published a review of studies conducted on learning with ebooks versus print books. One conclusion was that more research is needed – of the 878 studies they reviewed, only 36 reliably measured learning between the two mediums.
However, they also discovered a stark consistency in study outcomes: if a text is more than a page long (about 500 words), print books are superior to ebooks for reading comprehension. This finding persists at all educational levels, from elementary school to high school to college.
Why students (might) learn better with print books
Identifying performance differences is only part of the equation. Researchers want to know why students tend to learn better with print books than ebooks. That understanding could inspire advancements that bring digital texts on par with print books for reading comprehension. Here are reasons researchers believe print books might be better than ebooks for learning.
Digital books impede cognitive mapping
One theory is that print books allow for cognitive mapping, while ebooks do not. Visual cues like page numbers and tactile, kinesthetic and sensorimotor cues like page turning and the weight of the pages from left to right as students progress through a book might lend to enhanced comprehension by leaving “spatial impressions” in a reader’s mind.
Those cues are absent in the constant scrolling of ebooks, but print readers can rely on memory helpers like recalling a particular passage was near the top left-hand corner of a specific page, for example.
In a study jointly conducted by Florida State University, the University of Southern California and Sungkyunkwan University, researchers tested reading comprehension, fatigue and psychological immersion between three different mediums: print text, a digital equivalent and a digital disrupted view. Results were similar for the print and digital equivalent versions, which were both better than the digital disrupted version.
The researchers concluded that reading outcomes were positively affected by cognitive mapping, but were not influenced by medium materiality. This suggests that print readers do not outperform digital readers simply because they’re reading on paper instead of screens, but because ebooks are not formatted in a manner that facilitates cognitive mapping.
Details are lost in non-linear reading
People tend to concentrate more on the text when they’re reading print books: they read each sentence, paragraph and page in its entirety and in order. This type of deep reading facilitates comprehension and lends to enhanced learning.
Screen reading is different: people tend to skim screens, their eyes jump around seeking contextual clues that allow them to get the gist of a text. Called non-linear reading, this enables a reader to quickly grasp the main idea at the risk of missing key details necessary to gain a deeper understanding. It’s like reading a book summary, but not the actual book.
The phenomenon might not be intentional: studies in neuroscience have found that people use different parts of the brain for print reading and screen reading, and a study by researchers from the University of Norway corroborates others’ work: print readers retain plot points better than screen readers.
Screens are distracting
Print book readers are faced only with the text. That’s not the case for screen readers, who can easily switch from ebook to Facebook to email to anything else in a split second. These types of distractions can hinder reading comprehension by breaking concentration and limiting your ability to fully immerse yourself in the text.
Even ebook enhancements designed to help students learn can prove distracting. In one study by West Chester University, researchers Jordan and Heather Ruetschilin Schugar found that children spent 43% of their ebook time playing embedded games instead of reading.
Other potential distractions include steep learning curves for those unfamiliar with ebooks, battery life issues and faulty software and hardware.
Screens cause visual and mental fatigue
Another consideration is the potential for lighted, flickering screens to cause visual and mental fatigue.
In a research article published by the Public Library of Science, the authors compared blink rates and study participants’ self-reported level of fatigue when reading on paper, LCD screens and E-ink screens. They found that LCD screen reading caused greater visual fatigue than the other two mediums.
Notably, visual fatigue levels were comparable between print reading and E-ink reading.
Studies cited here illustrate that students perform better when they read print books, especially for longer texts. It makes sense, then, that a 2018 survey by Library Journal found that students prefer print for long-form reading and ebooks for research. Most students said print books are easier to read, but ebooks offer research benefits such as searchability and technology improvements.
Student preference is an important factor because it might play a role in reading comprehension. The University of Maryland study referenced above discusses how participants preferred digital texts and predicted better performance via screen reading, yet performed better when reading printed texts.
Another study by researchers at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology likewise found that students were overconfident about their reading comprehension skills when reading digital texts. However, that same study discovered that, with practice, “screen inferiority” can be eliminated – but only among those who prefer learning from screens.
Given the proliferation of screens on campuses, in classrooms and in homes, it might be easy to assume student preference will gradually trend toward ebooks and thus eliminate screen inferiority. Perhaps it is simply turbulence during a cultural shift: as today’s learners become accustomed to reading on screens from a young age, reading comprehension will improve with each generation.
That logic seems faulty, however, considering the performance gap between digital readers and print readers has increased since the year 2000.
The case for ebooks
Despite overwhelming evidence that print books are better for learning, there are cases in which ebooks appear to have advantages – especially for certain student populations.
Ebooks improve outcomes for children at risk for learning disabilities
Though interactive features like games and puzzles can prove distracting for ebook readers, the right multimedia has the potential to enhance learning – particularly for young students who are at risk for learning disabilities.
In one study conducted by researchers from Bar Ilan University, both typically developing kindergarteners and those at risk for LD were divided into groups: a control group that learned via normal programming, and an experimental group that had ebook intervention. The ebooks supplemented text with interactive features like text tracking, highlighting and an illustrated dictionary.
Those who had the ebook – both typically developing and at risk for LD children – demonstrated significant improvement in vocabulary. However, typically developing children still outperformed children at risk for LD on measures of story comprehension.
In a similar study published in the European Journal of Special Needs Education, researchers measured children at risk for LD for verbal and non-verbal cognition, rhyming literacy and math skills before and after intervention. The study separated the students into three groups: normal programming, ebook alone and ebook with metacognitive guidance.
Both ebook groups outperformed the normal programming group across the range of tests, and the group that received ebooks with metacognitive guidance demonstrated the greatest improvement in rhyming skills.
Ebooks might motivate young students
It’s no secret some students are reluctant to read, but a report by the UK-based National Literacy Trust suggests that ebooks could motivate young students to improve their reading skills – and even shape positive attitudes around reading.
In the study, children were given the opportunity to read ebooks instead of traditional print books. Over a 4.2-month period, reading levels increased by an average of 8.4 months for boys and 7.2 months for girls. In addition, the number of boys who said reading was difficult was reduced by nearly half, and the percentage of students who said reading was “cool” nearly doubled.
It’s uncertain whether these attitudinal shifts occurred because ebook learning was superior to print book learning or if the novelty of a “cool” new technology motivated students to succeed.
Read Also: eTextbooks: Ways to Pay Less
The future of ebooks VS print books
It’s clear that print books are superior to ebooks for most students’ learning – but that doesn’t mean ebooks don’t have a place. Their ubiquity means ebooks must be part of the digital literacy conversation.
To compete with print books, however, ebook publishers must make a concerted effort to understand which features benefit learning and which distract from it. Games might help sell ebooks, but they might not help students pass their classes.
In addition, students need to be educated on how to use ebooks to their advantage. Guidance from parents and educators is required to teach students to efficiently use tools like search, magnification, highlighting, audio and bookmarking, all the while encouraging content comprehension over feature engagement. This is a role publishers and even software developers can assume as well.
More research is needed to determine whether ebooks can rival print books – and how to translate those findings into digital tomes that enhance learning. In the meantime, perhaps the best strategy for serious students is to avoid ebooks and opt for the print versions instead.