Paper Versus Computer Screens

books versus computer screens for learningComputers and the internet play a huge part in learning nowadays. Online courses, online lecture notes for students and research material for essays are just some of the reasons behind the rise of computers in education.

But is our increased use of computers affecting our quality of learning? Would we be better sticking to traditional books and paper? Researchers at the Children’s Digital Media Centre in LA set out to answer these questions in a recent series of studies and the results were interesting.

The studies, based on sixty six students, examined three questions; what medium the students preferred to work with, if their memory and reading comprehension was better on paper or screen and which medium was better for critical thinking when essay writing.

Sixty of the sixty six students said that they preferred to study with paper than on the computer but when scientists tested this, the results showed that there was no difference in reading comprehension skills or memory after reading on paper or on screen, even when the students were allowed to multitask. Multitasking, however, did mean that the students took longer to read.

The scientists also found that there was no difference between reading source materials for essay writing online or on page. Even though the students felt that their essays would be better when they had researched on paper instead of the internet, the quality was the same for both paper and online research.

These results were only applicable to when the students did not have access to the internet, once the students went online and multitasked, the results went down. However, when students took notes from the internet using a pen and paper, results improved again.

While the internet and computer screens do not appear to hamper our learning dramatically, the way we read on the internet could be affecting our quality of reading. Cognitive neuroscientists have warned that humans are beginning to develop ‘digital’ style brains that skim through information and are unable to read slowly.

In the US, time spent online was expected to be around five hours per day for the average adult last year; a three hour increase from the previous year. It is this time spent on the internet and on social media that has trained our brains to skim sentences for buzz words and has left us unable to read long pieces of writing as we are scrolling and scanning through pieces instead of reading.

This habit of jumping through text is bad news for studying, as we need to be able to absorb what we are reading in order to be able to learn. Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University, recommends having a balance between reading from books and on screen and advocates taking breaks from the computer to have time to read a book slowly.

So, when it comes to absorbing what we read, it appears that having a balance of both the computer and books is advisable, as is as staying away from social media. However, if you’re still reading this, then maybe you’re not doing too bad after all.

Author: Fiona McBennett