Does Reading on Paper or Screens (computer, tablet) affect Learning?

Reading on paper or reading on a digital screen can affect what you end up absorbing from the text , according to a study by Dartmouth researchers .

In the study, people who used computer screens to learn improved when it came to understanding concrete details, but had a harder time understanding abstract concepts.

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

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

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

There was a comprehensive result: using computer screens to learn made abstract thinking worse, but it improved the recall of concrete details.

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

This study is based more specifically on the findings of previous studies that show that people respond differently if computerized or paper-based tasks are given, although comprehensive conclusions should be avoided, according to some in the scientific community.

“This was a small, well-conducted study, but we have to be careful about extending the findings to the general population,” 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 on how digital media affects us now and in the long run.”


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