Paper or Screen? For Learning, It Matters

I admit I do it.  But then, I was the last one to give up my typewriter for a desktop back when the newsroom switched over.

I'm talking about reading on paper vs. on a screen.  I know a lot of people -- maybe most of America -- prefers e-books but I just can't shake the need to hold something in my hands when I'm reading.

Now a new study says how you read may just affect how you learn.  The study suggests that it’s not only what you read, but how you read it that matters, according to 

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," the web site explained. 

“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 gasp both concrete and abstract information from what they had read.

While using computer screens for learning worsened abstract thinking, it 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 says. “They may not be best at helping us remember larger concepts, though.” 

I've tried to read the news on my smart phone and though I've pretty much been able to accomplish it, I so much more prefer holding The New York Times' in my dirty, inky hands.  


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