Read it Online or on Paper—Which Medium is Better for Comprehension?

Guest post by Paradigm author Denise Seguin

Midterms are coming soon, and you might have a long reading list to get through. Do you read from a digital version or do you read from a printed copy away from the glow of your screen?

Have you ever wondered if it makes a difference in your grade which reading medium you choose?

Many educators have been interested in the differences between reading on a screen versus reading on paper. Here’s some findings from research studies:

  • We tend to misjudge our screen reading comprehension. When asked to self-evaluate comprehension, students said online reading was better. However, when the students were tested on comprehension, the print scores were higher.
  • If you will be tested on the main idea only from a passage of text, either medium will net you the same grade.
  • For short passages of text (less than a page of text), no difference in comprehension was found for screen reading versus paper-based reading.
  • For a long text passage or a reading assignment that required the reader to achieve a deeper comprehension level (called “Deep Reading”), you will get a better grade if you read the text in print.

When reading on a screen, we read significantly faster than when we read on paper, leading some to the conclusion that screen reading is not as good for comprehension. One reason why the text length on a screen is a factor in comprehension has to do with the size of the screen being used to read. Scrolling has been found to interrupt our concentration. Another reason you may want to read a long passage in print is the inevitable distractions that occur when reading online. Muting the sound doesn’t stop those notifications from popping up on your screen, making it tempting to jump to something else if the text is long and complex. Finally, one researcher suggests that we may have a different mental attitude when reading on a screen. Given that a lot of online reading is social media driven, this hypothesis makes sense.

Knowing in advance that there is a difference in comprehension for reading online versus reading in print will help you choose the right medium for the task at hand.


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