Why Students Still Prefer Printed Word

by Michael Rosenwald, The Washington Post, 2/22/15

 Greater comprehension with fewer distractions.

Frank Schembari loves books — printed books. He loves how they smell. He loves scribbling in the margins, underlining interesting sentences, folding a page corner to mark his place.

Schembari is not a retiree who sips tea at [a] bookstore. He is 20, a junior at American University, and paging through a thick history of Israel between classes, he is evidence of a peculiar irony of the Internet age: Digital natives prefer reading in print.

“I like the feeling of it,” Schembari said…. “I like holding it. It’s not going off. It’s not making sounds.”…

A University of Washington pilot study of digital textbooks found that a quarter of students still bought print versions of e-textbooks that they were given for free.

Earlier this month, Naomi S. Baron [an American University linguist who studies digital communication], published Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (hardcover and electronic). It examines university students’ preferences for print and explains the science of why dead-tree versions are often superior to digital. Readers tend to skim on screens, distraction is inevitable, and comprehension suffers.

In years of surveys, Baron asked students what they liked least about reading in print. Her favorite response: “It takes me longer because I read more carefully.”…

On college campuses…students still lug backpacks stuffed with books, even as they increasingly take notes (or check Facebook) on laptops during class. At American, Cooper Nordquist, a junior studying political science, is even willing to schlep around Alexis de Tocqueville’s 900-plus-page Democracy in America.

Without having read Baron’s book, [Nordquist] offered reasons for his print preference that squared with her findings.

The most important one to him is “building a physical map in my mind of where things are.” Researchers say readers remember the location of information simply by page and text layout — that, say, the key piece of dialogue was on that page early in the book with that one long paragraph and a smudge on the corner. Researchers think this plays a key role in comprehension.

But that is more difficult on screens, primarily because the time we devote to reading online is usually spent scanning and skimming, with few places (or little time) for mental markers. Baron cites research showing readers spend a little more than one minute on Web pages, and only 16% of people read word-by-word. That behavior can bleed into reading patterns when trying to tackle even lengthier texts on-screen.

“I don’t absorb as much,” one student told Baron. Another said, “It’s harder to keep your place online.” Another significant problem…is distraction…. In her surveys, Baron writes that she found “jaw-dropping” results to the question of whether students were more likely to multitask in hard copy (1%) vs. reading on-screen (90%)….

When do students prefer digital?

For science and math classes, whose electronic textbooks often include access to online portals that help walk them through study problems and monitor their learning. Textbook makers are pushing these “digital learning environments” to make screen learning more attractive.

They prefer them for classes in which locating information quickly is key — there is no control-F in a printed book to quickly find key words.

And they prefer them for cost — particularly when the price is free…. If price weren’t a factor, Baron’s research shows that students overwhelmingly prefer print. Other studies show similar results.

The problem, Baron writes, is that there has been “pedagogical reboot” where faculty and textbook makers are increasingly pushing their students to digital to help defray costs “with little thought for educational consequences.”

“We need to think more carefully about students’ mounting rejection of long-form reading,” Baron writes.

And that thinking shouldn’t be limited to millennials, Baron said. Around the country, school systems are buying millions of tablets and laptops for classroom use, promising easier textbook updates, lower costs, less back strain from heavy book bags, and more interactivity. But the potential downsides aren’t being considered, she said.

“What’s happening in American education today?” she said. “That’s what I’m concerned about. What’s happening to the American mind?”…

Michael Rosenwald writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.


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