Saving your brain for bigger thoughts
We all know this truth: Pretty much everything about the online universe is designed to grab your attention away from whatever you’re doing. Fighting these distractions is exhausting — the effort runs down your reserves and tires you out, and that applies to students, too. “If you’re reading on your screen and a pop-up appears for a new email, it takes mental willpower to ignore that,” says Dr. Dar-Wei Chen, a Ph.D. in engineering psychology and a research scientist at Soar Technology who co-authored a 2015 study looking at how screens affect students’ reading comprehension and metacognition.
While digital screens are increasingly common in the classroom and for students, studies have shown that children comprehend more when they read on printed pages. Students read more carefully off printed paper and tested significantly better for reading comprehension when they used printed pages instead of screens. Overall, printed matter has been shown to likely be better for deep comprehension.
One 2014 study, performed by Dr. Anne Mangen from Norway's Stavanger University, found that reading comprehension was significantly better on the page than on the screen. She specifically found that paper readers were better at reconstructing plot points in order. "[That] might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper…is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading," Mangen told The Guardian. She hypothesized that for light reading, screens are fine, but when trying to absorb a complex analysis or literary novel, the printed page is best.
Chen agrees. “If you’re just trying to get a general gist, the screen can be fine,” Chen says. “But if you’re trying to read a little deeper, for a class or something you’re very interested in, paper is the best way to go.”
Read next: Why more and more digital natives are hitting print.