Books better than screens for students, study finds

Young ‘digital natives’ more likely to skim longer pieces and not take notes when using screens

Young “digital natives” are much more likely to absorb information from printed books rather than screens even though they have grown up surrounded by iPads and smartphones, new research shows.

The analysis of how more than 170,000 people are learning across Europe finds that paper is the preferred reading medium for both children and young adults when reading novels and longer-form articles.

Researchers have found that young readers are more likely to skim longer pieces of text when using iPads or e-readers, especially when under time pressure.

They are also less likely take notes for comprehension or “get lost” in the immersive experience of a novel when reading on screens.

Dr Ann Marcus-Quinn, a lecturer at University of Limerick who is part of an EU-wide research team, said the findings have implications for how students learn both at home and in the classroom.

“Just because young people can master electronic devices doesn’t mean that they have the critical skills to interpret texts,” she said.

“While there is a bigger focus on independent learning, students still need expertise and help [from teachers] . . . and if students are taking notes, the old approach of using a pencil and pen or Post-It notes has its place.”


The research also indicates that teachers tend to underestimate the negative impact of digital technology when their students read longer texts, while students are more likely to be overconfident about their comprehension ability, researchers found.

However, Dr Marcus-Quinn cautioned against ditching technology entirely and said shorter texts, such as poetry, can work well on screens.

She said she is involved in research which indicates that engagement with poetry can be boosted when there is access to layers of richer content on screens, such as deeper analysis of the text.

There have been a team of almost 200 scholars and scientists researching the impact of digitisation on reading practices across the EU as part of a wider research project.

It has involved more than 50 individual studies with more than 170,000 participants over the past four years.

Dr Marcus-Quinn said there is a major challenge to discover ways in which to facilitate deep reading of long-form texts in a screen environment given the growing use of screens.


As part of the project, Dr Marcus-Quinn and Dr Triona Hourigan of UL have been focusing on the impact of e-learning for reading-based activities in secondary schools.

They are investigating how typographic presentation can optimise users’ experience of learning from screens.

Experts involved in the research group – known as E-Read, or Evolution of Reading in the Age of Digitisation – have called for caution when introducing digital technology into education on foot of these findings.

They have also urged that teachers should be made aware that a “rapid and indiscriminate” move away from paper is “not neutral”.

“Unless accompanied by carefully developed digital learning tools and strategies, they may cause a setback in the development of children’s reading comprehension and emerging critical thinking skills,” the group said, in a joint statement.

Funding for the research has been partly prompted by concern within the EU over relatively low reading standards compared to Asian countries.

In international reading assessments, however, Irish children are the best readers in Europe and among the best in the world.

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