Print Versus Digital Materials: What the Research Says

If your district is gearing up for an adoption this year, part of your selection calculation likely will be whether to purchase print or digital/online materials.  An article in the Hechinger Report  titled, “A Textbook Dilemma: Digital or Paper?” may be useful.

The article discusses Patricia Alexander’s review of research on this topic. Ms. Alexander is an educational psychologist and a literacy scholar at the University of Maryland. Despite numerous (878) potentially relevant studies on the topic, Ms. Alexander pointed out that “only 36 [studies] directly compared reading in digital and in print and measured learning in a reliable way.” Despite the need for further research on this topic, Ms. Alexander found that numerous studies affirm the finding that: “if you are reading something lengthy – more than 500 words or more than a page of the book or screen – your comprehension will likely take a hit if you’re using a digital device.” This pertained to college students as well as students in elementary, middle, and high school.    

The research highlights several reasons why:

  • Reading online is more physically and mentally demanding (e.g, “the nuisance of scrolling and the tiresome glare and flicker of the screen) than reading a textbook.
  • Online readers may not concentrate as well, distracted by social media alerts, the temptation to browse the internet, etc.
  • Reading a printed book leaves spatial impressions in your mind (i.e., where something was on a page) that may not occur with the same frequency online.

Ms. Alexander also addressed whether “note taking on paper offers measurable advantages for learning?” For example, whether highlighting and underlining online versus on paper affected comprehension more positively. She concluded, “Those kind of motor responses have never been of highest value in terms of text processing strategies.” Rather, “the studying strategy with ‘the greatest power,’ …. involves deeply questioning the text — asking yourself if you agree with the author, and why or why not.”

The point of the research is not to identify a winner; print and digital materials are here to stay. As Ms. Alexander put it, “The core question [is] when is a reader best served by a particular medium? And what kind of readers? What age? What kind of text are we talking about? All of those elements matter a great deal.”

For more research on this topic, see “Don’t throw away your printed books: A meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension.”