Paper v. Pixels: Can Reading on a Screen Impact Your Ability to Learn?

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Renowned media theorist Marshall Mcluhan famously quipped, “the medium is the message,” suggesting that the medium through which content is delivered communicates just as much– if not more – than the content itself. How content is delivered significantly affects how we perceive that content, and a preeminent example of this point is the great debate between print media and virtual media. There are staunch supporters who stand by printed media, and then there are those who have adapted to consuming the written word electronically.

Whether you prefer reading on a screen or on paper, as it turns out, is more than just a preference. Studies have proven that the reading on paper provides a different experience than electronic reading that can actually affect how much – and what type – of information you retain. Let’s take a closer look at the paper versus pixels debate and determine which medium reigns supreme in the realm of the written word.

In Defense of Paper

In an article for Wired titled “Why the Smart Reading Device of the Future May Be… Paper,” Brandon Keim notes how reading electronically seems to hinder his ability to fully absorb the material:

 “What I’ve read on screen seems slippery… When I later recall it, the text is slightly translucent in my mind’s eye. It’s as if my brain better absorbs what’s presented on paper. Pixels just don’t seem to stick.”

As it turns out, there’s a reason why Keim – and many others – experience this phenomenon. In a study conducted at Karlstad University in Sweden, Erik Wästlund discovered that students learned better when reading on paper. Wästlund found that the study participants who consumed text virtually not only retained more of the information they consumed, but also experienced markedly higher levels of stress and tiredness in comparison with their counterparts who read on paper.

In a similar study, Rakafet Ackerman at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology discovered that students reading on paper had a more accurate understanding of their learning processes than did their peers reading on a screen. Those students reading on paper had a better grasp of how much they had learned and retained from their reading. The students reading on their screens, however, overestimated how much they had learned. In the study, the ‘screen readers’ thought they had absorbed information readily, but tests disproved this, suggesting that screens ‘seem to foster overconfidence.

Given the above research, it might seem that reading on paper will always be the most reliable method for consuming information. However, don’t give up your virtual books just yet, as reading on a screen boasts a surprising number of benefits.

ebook-file-typesThe Perks of Reading on a Screen

In a study conducted at Dartmouth’s Tiltfactor lab, participants read selections either on paper or on an electronic screen. Then, they were given a quiz testing their ability to recall concrete details and infer information about the narrative and characters. Surprisingly, those reading from PDFs and tablets performed better at the questions recalling concrete details, while the participants reading from paper did better on the questions dealing with more abstract concepts.

According to the study press release:

“Using digital platforms such as tablet and laptops for reading may make you more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly.”

Additionally, e-readers can be an asset to those who need to concentrate on one small section of text at a time. In particular, studies have proven that e-readers are more effective for dyslexics than reading on paper.

So Who Wins in the Pixels v. Paper Debate?

When it comes to the pixels versus paper debate, this is not a case of either/or. Viewing the decision to either read on paper or on a screen as an absolute ignores the fact that both mediums offer distinct positives to the reader. Rather than thinking about reading in terms of ‘old versus new’ and ‘paper versus screen,’ it might be more productive for us to approach the two mediums as complementary interfaces, each stimulating particular modes of thinking and suited to different manners of reading.

If you’re trying to stimulate creativity, foster innovation or deeply absorb yourself in a narrative, reading on paper will benefit you the most. If you’re focused more on abstract concepts or only need to consume purely factual details, then reading on a screen will best fit your needs. Whatever your choice may be, just remember that your chosen medium can speak to you just as much as the words you consume on that medium.

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