Wednesday, October 18, 2017
A new study has found that college students' reading comprehension improves "significantly" when they read print versus screens. What makes this study somewhat unique is that the researchers tested reading comprehension across a variety of texts that varied in length. Their overall conclusion was that the medium matters.
This new study, which is summarized here at the Business Insider, confirms my own observation having read several empirical studies comparing print to screens. While you can find data to support the proposition that the medium makes no difference when it comes to reader comprehension, the problem is that many of these studies don't control for things like the length or complexity of the text. So, yes, there are studies that find screens have no deleterious effect on student comprehension but when you drill down a bit deeper, it turns out some of these studies tested reading comprehension using very short passages of a page or less. This new study synthesizes the results of several studies that used texts of various lengths to conclude that, overall, the medium makes a difference.
It also reinforces the point that other researchers have made that there's no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to reading. In some contexts, like browsing the news or reading a popular novel for pleasure, screens have advantages. In other contexts, particularly when the material is complex, print is the superior format. And although this new study found that students say they prefer screens to print, I've also read numerous other studies and polls results that conclude those preferences vary depending on the task at hand. Thus, college students have told researchers that in terms of cost savings, they much prefer digital textbooks but when it comes to the need to comprehend difficult material for class, they prefer traditional books.