Reading beyond comprehension

Do students learn better when reading from pixels or paper? Education professor Virginia Clinton seeks the answer

Virginia Clinton, assistant professor in education, health and behavior at UND, conducts research on reading comprehension and open educational resources. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

In the age of computers, tablets, e-readers and smart phones, one might think technically savvy college students would have a strong preference for reading on electronic devices rather than from traditional books.

Virginia Clinton, assistant professor in education, health and behavior at the University of North Dakota College of Education & Human Development, found this isn’t necessarily true, even with open textbooks that are freely available in e-book format and much less expensive than commercial textbooks. Her background in the psychology of text comprehension explores how people read and how textbooks can be designed to make them more effective learning tools.

Clinton sought to answer the “Pixels or paper?” question after using an open textbook available in e-book format for a class she taught at UND. Although most students elected to use the free e-book version rather than the paper version, they told her they didn’t like reading from the screen of an electronic device.

“Usually students get commercial textbooks on paper, even though there are electronic versions of them as well,” Clinton said. “That’s what sparked my interest in this. I looked into it and realized there was a lot of research available on the subject.”

She conducted a meta-analysis of the research – a summary intended to identify patterns or trends in research findings based on certain criteria. For example, Clinton used reports and studies centered on experiments comparing differences between paper and screen for reading performance, time and accuracy. In all, she looked at 29 reports with 33 identified studies that met her criteria for inclusion in the analysis.

“Based on my theoretical understanding of reading comprehension, I really couldn’t think of any reason why there should be a difference between reading from paper and a screen – all else being equal,” she explained. “There are many studies showing no difference. I really expected that there’d be no difference. But when I did the meta-analysis, I found that when you aggregated the results from all those studies, there was a small benefit of paper.”

Fact or fiction matters

This wasn’t true in all cases, however. For readers of narrative texts, which are fiction, there was no difference in reading performance between screens and paper. With nonfiction works, readers performed better with paper. Clinton has some thoughts on why this might be so.

“Readers might be overconfident when they read from screens,” she said. “They’re accustomed to screens being for more casual reading. Because of that overconfidence, they’re not taking it as seriously or comprehending as well. We have this idea that if something’s on paper, it’s more serious. If it’s on a screen – a social media feed or messaging or something related to entertainment like a video or Netflix – it’s not taken as seriously as it would be on paper.”

Clinton’s meta-analysis showed readers found paper books more beneficial for expository or nonfiction texts.

“This goes along with the idea that reading narrative is usually considered easier than expository reading,” she noted. “Narrative reading is usually thought of as being more fun, reading for entertainment as opposed to studying. If you’re thinking that you need to take the text seriously, you’ll take it more seriously from paper. Overwhelmingly, people prefer paper. It’s possible that they’re more immersed in the reading experience and more focused if they read from paper.”

Clinton said the question of whether students get more benefit from printed textbooks or those in electronic format is primarily a matter of personal preference. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Clinton stressed that the results of her meta-analysis shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that e-books on electronic devices should be banned from classrooms.

“I know for me personally that it’s important for my kids to learn how to read using both technology and paper because that’s what their future lives are going to involve,” she explained. “If they don’t know how to regulate their behavior using technology – to focus on it, to use the tools available – they’re going to struggle when they leave the school environment for the workplace or they’re in higher education and surrounded by technology.”

Clinton tells her students that if they prefer reading from paper, it’s probably worth buying a printed textbook or printing out the e-book version.

“One experiment I looked at found that with people who like reading from screens, there’s no harm in reading from a screen; they read just as well from a screen as they do from paper,” she said. “That’s one reason why I think preference is such a big part of it. If you like paper books, by all means, keep reading paper books. I’m not saying anyone needs to switch to screens if they don’t want to.”

More research needed

Virginia Clinton

According to Clinton, more study is needed on the topic of how reading from screens versus paper affects comprehension, especially with K-12 students. Conducting open textbook research on student subgroups, such as those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, would be beneficial as well. She also noted better methodology is needed to make valid comparisons for open textbooks.

“A professor might teach with a commercial textbook one semester and then an open textbook another semester,” she said. “Sometimes they’re not even comparing the same class and they’re not controlling for other factors that can occur.”

Identifying problems that cause reading comprehension difficulties for college students is another area of research in which Clinton is involved. Under an Institute of Education Sciences grant, she’s part of a team developing a reading test for college students. It can help determine if someone is reading too literally by not incorporating their background knowledge or correctly connecting different ideas. Another common problem is incorporating irrelevant, tangentially related information that detracts from developing a well-connected representation of the text.

“With our test, we’re not just trying to see if students are making those appropriate connections, but why are they not?” Clinton asked. “The wrong answers they give actually help diagnose their particular struggles with reading.”

Understanding how students read and comprehend what they read is like putting a puzzle together, Clinton concluded.

“Reading,” she said, “is ultimately taking this bag of words in a text and connecting the ideas to make a well-constructed, mental representation of the text.”