Meta-analysis: reading on paper improves reading comprehension

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A professor at the University of North Dakota analyzed 33 studies to find an answer to the long debate about whether it is better to read on paper or on a screen.

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Since 2008, numerous studies have compared reading from paper and electronic sources. To find out which method provides the best comprehension, Virginia Clinton, an assistant professor of education at the University of North Dakota, conducted a meta-analysis of 33 high-quality studies.

Out of all the studies, 29 of them find out students tend to absorb more information when they read on paper, especially if it's a long read. These findings differ with the recent emphasis on digital texts from publishers like Pearson, the largest textbook publisher in North America, who announced in July a focus on a digital strategy.

The results are also problematic because, according to a report from the National Association of College Stores, in 2019 22% of college students are using free online texts and materials, compared to 3% registered in 2015.

The different studies did not include the supplements that give advantages to the digital format. These elements range from whistles, quizzes, questionnaires and the option to instantly search for unknown words. Without a reliable study that analyzes the impact of add-ons, it's hard to tell if they would've made any difference. Clinton is determined to study them in her laboratory to find answers.

Experts have different explanations about why reading in print helps students. Some argue that it is easier for them to remember what they read because they recognize the location of a passage on a physical paper.

Another disadvantage of digital format found in the study is that digital readers usually overestimate their reading comprehension, thinking that they performed better than actual results. On the other hand, readers who read printed texts were more precise in their self-analysis. The difference may be in excessive confidence because it can affect the student by putting less effort into their reading.

The genre also matters. According to several studies, there is a considerable advantage in reading nonfiction texts in print but almost no difference in narrative fiction, like a Jane Austen book, for example. 

Due to the high cost of printed books, it is easy to understand why companies like Pearson are becoming digital. Even so, Clinton recommends that teachers, if using screens, take extra time to show students how to read better online. One example could be to implement reading comprehension exercises to ensure that they do not miscalculate their understanding.

Still, each format has its benefits. It is a matter of knowing how to take advantage of each one. For example, digital books are excellent for younger students since the digital medium is usually more practical and affordable, which can help encourage reading. On the other hand, texts printed on paper are better for those who are easily distracted and need to pay more attention.

What is your preferred reading media? Share with us your reading habits.