Reading text on a screen can impact what you learn: Study

by L&D16 May 2016
Are you one to read text on a screen, or do you prefer to print pages off to comprehend them?

The result might be more telling than you think.

Indeed, a new study by Dartmouth College researchers, including Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan, has found that the medium you use to read text can impact what you end up absorbing. 

The study included more than 300 people from ages 20 to 24, and aimed to measure how they processed and retained information they read based on the medium they used.

In order to make the study as accurate as possible, the researchers published the words in the same font size and format for both the digital and print mediums.

For one of the tests, it found that print readers got 66% of the abstract questions correct on average, while the digital readers only answered 48% of them accurately. 

For concrete questions, digital readers got 73% correct while print readers got 58% right. Kaufman added that print readers scoring higher on abstract questions seemed to remain steady for the three additional tests.

If you look at pages of a historical text, concrete thinkers will typically be better at telling you the timeline of what happened, while abstract thinkers excel at telling you why things happened. Abstract thinking is also linked to creativity and empathy.

The key result was that using computer screens for learning undermined abstract thinking, but 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 said.

“They may not be best at helping us remember larger concepts, though.”

This study builds on the findings of other studies that show people respond differently if they are given computer or print-based tasks.

Craig Stark, a professor of neurobiology at the University of California, added that we have to be careful about extending the findings to the population at large.

“We really need more research about how digital media affects us now and in the long-run,” said Stark.

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