In response to the coronavirus pandemic, students across the world have shifted from traditional classroom learning to remote, online learning. As a result, many have replaced hard copy textbooks and worksheets with digital resources. Although digital books have been available for over a decade, there are questions about how well we absorb information from them. Recent studies have shown that print is easier to comprehend than digital text. Anne Mangen, a literacy professor at the University of Stavanger in Norway, describes print reading as a form of meditation that allows readers to focus their attention on something still. In contrast, digital reading can be visually demanding and provide many stimuli that can draw a reader's attention away from the text.
Mindset also plays a role in the comprehension of digital text. If individuals associate screen time with casual web-surfing, they may be more likely to rush through the text without fully absorbing its meaning. Despite this, many people believe they are the exception and can effectively comprehend digital text. However, studies suggest that digital reading can breed overconfidence. As Lauren Singer Trakhman, a researcher at the University of Maryland, College Park, explains, people read digital text more quickly and assume that they understand it better, but they may not be truly digesting the information.
Both Mangen and Trakhman agree that digital text is suitable for quickly scanning news headlines to get an overview of main ideas. However, longer and more complex texts are better read in print to fully retain details. While digital technology has provided many benefits and convenience, it is important to be aware of the potential pitfalls, including the risk of sacrificing comprehension for speed and convenience.
Digital Reading Results in Less Profound Comprehension
In the era of digital media, the debate over whether digital or print reading is better for comprehension and retention has been ongoing. A 2016 study by Singer Trakhman compared undergraduates’ comprehension after reading both digital and print versions of articles. Although the format did not affect their understanding of the main idea, students missed out on details when reading on screens. According to Mangen, digital reading hinders comprehension, particularly for more complex and longer texts. She suggests that this might be because constant exposure to fast-paced, digital media trains the brain to process information more rapidly and less thoroughly. While there isn't a lot of neuroscientific research on reading actual texts, the 2009 Millward Brown study on the processing of physical and digital materials indicates that the brain processes these materials differently. The study participants viewed advertisements on a screen and a printed card while having an fMRI scan. The study found that print materials were more likely to activate the medial prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex, which are both involved in processing emotions, whereas reading print generated more activity in the parietal cortex, which processes visual and spatial cues.
Keep Scrolling or Turn the Page?
According to a 2017 study, scrolling through digital text can negatively impact reading comprehension by creating spatial challenges. The study found that participants' comprehension suffered when they scrolled through a comic book's individual panels instead of seeing them all at once. This is because our brains construct a cognitive map of the text when we read, but scrolling through constantly moving landmarks makes it harder to remember the information. The LED screens' constant flickering glow also causes visual and mental fatigue, which can further impair comprehension.
E-readers like Kindles are likely a better option than other digital text formats because they don't require scrolling and reduce eyestrain with e-ink technology. However, they lack an important aspect of the reading experience: turning the page. In a study, participants who read a story on a Kindle were less likely to accurately recall the story's chronological order than those who read the same story in print. This may be because print provides sensorimotor cues that enhance cognitive processing. When holding a book, we receive reminders of how much we've read and how much remains, which can improve our understanding and retention of the material. Multiple senses and brain areas are also recruited during task learning, and this can include seeing the words, feeling the weight of the pages, and even smelling the paper, which can all contribute to better processing and memory of the information.
What Happens Next?
According to a study that reviewed research on reading comprehension between 2000 and 2017, it appears that our ability to comprehend digital text is diminishing rather than improving. The study also indicates that print has become even more advantageous compared to digital reading than it was in 2000. Mangen believes this Recould be due to the shallowing hypothesis, where the habit of reading quickly and superficially on screens spills over into all reading. Both Mangen and Singer Trakhman agree that we should not abandon digital reading entirely, but rather be mindful of the situation when selecting a medium. To remember on-screen text, Singer Trakham and Mangen recommend slowing down and handwriting key takeaways. When we need a break from the digital world, Mangen and Singer Trakhman suggest that we pick up a paper book and turn off our electronic devices to unwind.
In conclusion, while digital reading offers convenience and ease of access, it may not be the best option for developing strong reading comprehension skills. The research indicates that digital reading can lead to shallow processing and impair our ability to remember and recall details. Therefore, it's important to consider the situation and choose the most appropriate reading medium to optimize our learning experience.
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