Why Print Still Matters for Learning


There are times and places, says Dr. Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University, when digital books are fantastic — like in developing countries where the price of print is prohibitive.

“Besides convenience and potential cost savings, they can democratize access to education. Citizens of many countries can’t afford print textbooks,” she writes in Paper & Packaging. “Free distribution of eBooks, increasingly read on mobile phones (now available almost everywhere), can spur literacy.”

Spurring literacy is a worthwhile goal, but in already highly literate societies like ours, print has distinct advantages over digital reading for students, Dr. Baron claims.

“Where does print have advantages over digital reading? The answer is often in learning. Let’s look at four “C’s” important for reading: continuity, concentration, concepts and contemplation.”

Dr. Baron spent five years surveying college students in the U.S., Germany, Japan and Slovakia, asking them a series of questions about their reading and study preferences.

“In my study, I asked students, ‘If you are assigned a long text for school, do you prefer reading it in hard copy or on a digital device?’ I then asked the same question about pleasure reading. In both cases, more than four out of five chose print. (When the text was short, the answers were mixed.),” she notes.

Many of the students pointed out difficulty concentrating when reading on-screen, thanks to the constant distractions. The study also showed decreases in recall, comprehension and memory in digital reading, which echoes what’s been seen in previous studies we’ve reported on. Print also allows for easier contemplation, with lovely margins for notes and highlighting. The tactile nature of making notations on printed paper has also been shown to improve comprehension.

Let’s support print in our schools and universities. Students prefer print books, and science backs up their choice with plenty of evidence. Let’s give our students the very best chance to become critical thinkers and deep learners.