Jobs and the Future of Work

Is our memory and comprehension better if we read on paper?

Christian Jarrett
Cognitive Neuroscientist, British Psychological Society\'s Research Digest Blog.
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This post first appeared on the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest Blog.

A significant milestone was passed in 2012 when Amazon announced that sales of books on its Kindle e-reader platform outstripped print sales for the first time. There’s no question that e-readers are convenient – you can load a single device with thousands of titles. But some commentators have started to question whether digital reading has adverse effects on memory and comprehension compared with reading from print.

In 2010, a reassuring study in fact found no difference in recall after reading material electronically versus paper. Now Sara Margolin and her colleagues have looked at reading comprehension and again found no deficits in understanding of material consumed on a Kindle or a computer versus paper.

Margolin’s team invited 90 student participants (average age 19 years) to read ten short passages of text.  One third of them read on paper (A4 size, Times New Roman font), 30 of them read on a second gen. Kindle (6 inch screen), and the remainder read via a pdf reader on a computer monitor. Five of the passages were factual (biographies) and five were excerpts from literary fiction. After each passage, the students answered five to six multiple-choice comprehension questions. They could take as long as they wanted to read each passage, but there was no going back to the text once they started answering the questions.

Overall accuracy was at around 75 per cent and, crucially, there was no difference in comprehension performance across the three conditions. This was true whether reading factual or narrative passages of text. “From an educational and classroom perspective, these results are comforting,” the researchers concluded. “While new technologies have sometimes been seen as disruptive, these results indicate that students’ comprehension does not necessarily suffer, regardless of the format from which they read their text.”

Unfortunately the study didn’t look at the participants’ familiarity with e-reader devices. It remains to be seen whether the same results would hold with an older sample and/or with readers who may be less experienced with digital devices. Also the text passages were only around 500 words long. Future research needs to examine comprehension for entire chapters and books. Devices like iPads, which are back-lit and have more potentially distracting functionality, also need to be tested.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

Author: Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist turned science writer, is editor and creator of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.

Image: A woman reads a book at her open air book store. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski.

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Jobs and the Future of WorkIndustries in DepthEmerging Technologies
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