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How Is Digital Text Affecting Student Comprehension?

Today, we hear from Andrew McPeak. Andrew is a next gen researcher, speaker, and author for Growing Leaders. 

A recent article from the National Education Association explored the question of whether or not digital reading is equal to reading in print. Their findings were quite telling.

“While digital reading ‘is part and parcel of living and learning in the 21st century,’ […] educators should still give careful thought about how and when to employ a digital device in the classroom. The rush to digital […] is fueled by a number of factors, but improved student learning may not be one of them.”

Researchers found that digital reading was faster but less effective as a tool for helping students process and learn information. What’s interesting is that although their retention was worse when reading online, the students surveyed believed that reading online improved their retention. It’s a case of misunderstanding that the scientists blamed on the speed of digital reading. “Speed gives [students] the illusion of faster processing and that must mean they’re getting it better. Just like in school, kids who finish first are usually perceived to be somehow better or smarter. So, speed tends to be aligned with intelligence as it is with so many things. But it can actually result in a deficit of learning compared to print.”

Here’s one question I asked myself as I read this study: “Isn’t it the same content—just on two different platforms?” How can a difference in the medium so affect the message? Here’s one way to think about the differences between print and digital. Consider the unique focus between these two styles of reading:

Digital Text Print Text
Meant to be read for speed Meant to be read for comprehension
Comes in shorter sections Comes in longer chapters
Designed to be simple Designed to be thorough
Goal is attraction: writers are rewarded for page visits Goal is information: writers are rewarded for explaining a concept

Because of these differences in purpose and style the effect of digital reading is felt most when you are testing for retention. The study in question found that “for general questions, getting the idea of the content, the medium doesn’t really make a difference. But for deeper learning and critical analysis—that’s different. Comprehension is significantly better when participants read printed texts.”

Working Memory Capacity and Scrolling While Reading

A 2010 study on the effects of retention of text while scrolling and reading revealed some interesting findings that can help inform how we lead the next generation through this problem. The first thing the study did was determine what is called the “working memory capacity” (WMC) of each participant. WMC determines a person’s ability to “process and store information simultaneously.” To put it simply (probably too simply), some people have an ability to process and memorize content simultaneously while they read, others can’t.

After a series of tests, “results indicated that scrolling negatively affects learning from text, and this effect is most pronounced in learners who have lower WMC. Across two studies, these learners were less able to develop a causal understanding of a complex topic when presented with a scrolling interface than when presented the same information units in discrete pages.”

It’s worth noting, however, that findings from this same study showed that “scrolling had little impact on higher-WMC learners.” In other words, reading online may be fine for some students, and much worse for others. Your opinion on the best ways to read may be less important than the ability of the students you lead.

To Read (on Your Phone) or Not to Read

So how do we process these findings? Chances are that whatever we might be finding out about the effects of digital reading will have little effect on the prevalence of digital text. Colleges are going to keep pushing digital textbooks, and articles are going to continue to go viral on the web. In this world of unstoppable digital words, the best we can do is understand our students better and help them make decisions that will aid them in their personal educational experience. Here are some suggestions for ways to curb this trend in favor of your students’ learning and comprehension.

If you have to read digitally, get a kindle or other e-reader. While digital reading is in some ways inferior to print reading, e-readers, which break text into pages instead of forcing readers to scroll, are a much less disruptive way of reading digital content.

Get an app to help block out distractions. There are some great apps out there that can help curb distractions on the internet. Consider an app like Forest or Freedom. Present a couple of options to your students and let them choose which one they want to try.

When you want to learn something, write it down. Even if you or your students find yourselves reading online (and even scrolling) the same study mentioned above tells us that writing down pertinent information by hand is a way to stop the negative effects of digital reading. Carry around a little notebook for this purpose.


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How Is Digital Text Affecting Student Comprehension?