Reading on a Screen Rather Than Paper May Affect What You Learn, Study Shows

PHOTO: A new study suggests reading on a screen versus on paper may affect what you comprehend about the text.Getty Images
A new study suggests reading on a screen versus on paper may affect what you comprehend about the text.

A new study suggests that it’s not only what you read, but how you read it that matters.

Reading on paper versus on a digital screen may impact what you end up absorbing from the text, according to a study by Dartmouth researchers. This research is being presented at the Association for Computing Machinery conference in San Jose, California, this week, and has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

In the study, people who used computer screens for learning did better when it came to understanding concrete details, but they had more difficulty understanding abstract concepts.

To put this into perspective: consider reading a chapter from a history book. Concrete thinkers will tell you the timeline of what happened, and abstract thinkers will tell you why it happened.

“We weren’t sure what to expect,” said Geoff Kaufmann, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science and one of the paper's co-authors. “Some of our previous work showed that people had a hard time seeing ‘big picture’ information when they did activities on an electronic device compared to paper.”

A research team led by Kaufman and Mary Flanagan, a professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth, conducted four experiments on more than 300 young adults. They compared how the brain processed information using a computer screen and with good old-fashioned printed paper.

Whether they analyzed fake Japanese cars or took a pop quiz about a David Sedaris short story, in all four experiments, researchers looked at how well participants were able to grasp both concrete and abstract information from what they had read.

There was one overarching result: using computer screens for learning worsened abstract thinking, but improved recall of concrete details.

“Smartphones are great devices for looking up quick, concrete facts like the name of an actor or a restaurant we want to try,” Flanagan said. “They may not be best at helping us remember larger concepts, though.”

This study builds more specifically on the findings of prior studies that show people do respond differently if given computer or paper-based tasks, though sweeping conclusions should be avoided, according to some in the scientific community.

“This was a small, well-run study, but we have to be careful about extending the findings to the population at large,” said Craig Stark, a professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved with the study. “We really need more research about how digital media affects us now and in the long-run.”

So, if you’re studying for your history test, look at this way: want to remember the dates of the French Revolution? Get out your laptop. Want to remember why the French Revolution happened? Time for the textbook.

Dr. Sunjay R. Devarajan is a senior internal medicine/pediatrics resident at Georgetown University Hospital. He is a resident in the ABC News Medical Unit.

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