In Praise of Print: Why Learning on Screens May Be Worse For Our Brains

Aug 24, 2021 | children online, schools

As technology advances, so do our habits – and reading is no different. With devices like the Kindle, and apps such as Apple Books, more and more of us are reading from our screens. Understandably, with the limitless collection of books, journals, newspapers and more available on a single device. But, as reading from screens has become more widespread, what do we know about the impact of learning from screens on our brains? Do we, in fact, learn better from paper, and if so, what does this mean for our growing tendency to get our information from a digital device?

What are the issues with learning on screens?

So, what are the real problems with reading from the screen? An article in the Hechinger Report collates 33 studies analysing the print vs. screen debate, and concluded that students of all ages usually digest more when they read from paper – especially with nonfiction material.

Experts have put forward several explanations why we may learn better from paper. Some argue that the “glare and flicker of screens tax the brain more than paper”, whilst others think the spatial quality, i.e. the idea of a passage possessing its own location on paper, is useful for recalling information. Another explanation cites the tendency to become distracted on a screen, surfing the internet, or browsing social media, as reasons why we should read more from paper, when trying to learn.

Learning from print may do our brains more good.

A study featured in the Review of Educational Research by Patricia Alexander and Lauren Singer, also found that our comprehension is affected when reading a piece longer than 500 words from a screen, suggesting it may be more suited for absorbing briefer pieces of information, than for longer texts.

Does the screen have any advantages?

As remote learning became the norm during the pandemic, research which concludes in favour of print over screen seems at odds with educational publishers’ strategies to increasingly prioritise texts in digital format. A “digital first” strategy has been announced by textbook publisher Pearson, who say that students will remain able to rent books, but will be put off buying physical copies due to “higher prices, fewer updates and limited availability”. It is expected that students will choose the cheaper digital option – despite a hit potentially taken by their learning.

Of course, there are unique advantages to digital text. They allow for the moving and editing of texts, allowing students to copy and paste passages into another document for supplementary study, and enable formatted, highlighted and edited text. Dutch scholar Joost Kircz also says it’s important to note that “these are still early days for digital reading, and new and better formats will continue to emerge” . Perhaps, the linear format of a physical book may be well suited for fictional tales, but not entirely compatible with academic texts in the future.

Could utilisation of both be the answer?

“Ideally, I would like to see both [paper and digital] in the classroom.”

Virginia Clinton, Assistant Professor of Education at the University of North Dakota.

Ultimately, there are arguments for both sides, and of course, as Virginia Clinton notes, any form of reading is beneficial for children. One important aspect of learning from screens may be in educating children to learn how to control their time spent online.

Other factors come into play too – reading is a personal experience, and the medium utilised will vary based on the reader’s age, their preferences, and what they’re reading. But, based on existing research at least, students clearly still need to be supplied with printed reading material, despite the ever-growing interest in the promotion of learning on screens. However, as the move towards learning on screens becomes more and more inevitable: students of all ages need to be educated on how to make the most of what they read from their screens.