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Wednesday, September 27, 2023


Forgo the eBook, study print to achieve better understanding

Reading no longer has to involve flipping through pages. With a click, swipe or tap of a finger, it is possible to find oneself reading an article, novel or even a textbook using a computer or tablet. While the convenience of digital reading adds to its growing popularity, there are concerns about reader comprehension, particularly with students.

As society moves into this digital era, there is some contention over the efficacy of digital learning compared to learning by print materials.


Izmail Glosson / The Daily Cougar

A recent survey done by Project Tomorrow showed that there has been an increase in technology used in the classroom, with almost one out of three public and private school students using a digital device provided by the school.

Moreover, EducationWeek also stated that emerging research on this issue showed that reader comprehension is higher after reading print material.

This theory was also proven by Heather R. and Jordan T. Schugar, a research team at Westchester University of Pennsylvania. They conducted a study in which a small sample of students read the same material in both print and on an iPad. The duo found that the students comprehended text at a higher level when reading in print. While research suggests that digital devices may motivate young people to read, those who read text digitally are more prone to skimming for information rather than reading deeply.

On a campus like UH, where students can be seen with phones and tablets glued to their palms, one wonders whether students help support these statistics.

Digital media seniors Thomas Gutierrez and Alberto Ceja’s research projects suggest similar findings. Working with small sample sizes, the focus of Gutierrez’s study was student preference, while Ceja’s focus was knowledge retention in print versus digital reading materials.

In Gutierrez’s study “Tablets vs. Textbooks,” he compared the usability, functionality and interactive ability of iTextbooks to print textbooks. His study showed that students preferred reading the iTextbooks. Students gave a variety of reasons for their preference for the iTextbook: it is less to carry, keeps costs down and offers more opportunities for personalization.

Convenience is a selling point for many college students. Recent psychology graduate Raquel Torres said it is the greatest benefit of digital reading.

“It’s easier to carry, you could multitask on it and you can get books quicker,” Torres said.

For Ceja’s research project, he had 20 students split into two groups, with one group reading an article digitally while the other read the print version. Both groups took a 10-question quiz on the article, using variable question types including multiple choice, true or false and short answer.

From this project, students who read the print article scored an average of 77 percent while students who read the article digitally scored an average of 60 percent.

These projects involved not only Gutierrez, Ceja and UH students, but also faculty members as well.

Digital media professor Jerry Waite oversaw both of these student projects.

“We are yet to see the tremendous ramifications in one category. It’s intensely personal at this point,” Waite said.

The Washington Post also reported on the potential decline of serious reading. The article said that cognitive neuroscientists are exploring the possibility that human brains are undergoing a shift from traditional deep reading to becoming “digital brains” that skim for information. However, because reading is an adaptation of the brain, it may be possible to adapt to digital reading.

Waite shared a story about his grandchildren — ages ranging between two and four years old — and how the use of an iPad is “all very intuitive for them.”

“When children have more of a use of these things as they are young, they will come to find them much more conducive to learning,” Waite said.

In the average campus bookstore, eBook versions of textbooks are available for rent or purchase for many courses, including Waite’s digital media classes. People who may not have been born in the eBook era may still prefer print — even if they are able to understand this technology.

“I have never seen one student using the iPad version; they all buy the book,” Waite said. “Part of that is because they weren’t raised with the iPad.”

As for communications senior Seidi Beltran, the familiarity with print is important to him when choosing between an eBook or print textbook.

“Print will always be my prime choice,” Beltran said. “I just feel like I comprehend and hold on to the material I’m reading more. I’m old school.”

While she sees the benefits of digital reading, Torres also prefers print.

“I prefer the physical form of text and I think personally you grasp information better when it’s presented to you in print,” Torres said.


Izmail Glosson / The Daily Cougar

To remedy the comprehension gap between the two media, more work is being done to create ed-tech products that enable students to use familiar print reading strategies with digital reading material. One of the websites featured by EducationWeek is Curriculet, a website that allows teachers to download and customize lessons around eBooks and other text materials they would like to upload.

Using Curriculet, teachers can add annotations and embed videos and voice clips. Students can view these as they read along and even add annotations of their own.

Curriculet CEO Jason Singer addressed concerns about these features interrupting the reading process.

“Reading flow should only be interrupted if the interruption is meaningful and relevant,” Singer said.

Waite said that humans have a real distraction problem when reading from digital materials, as suggested by Singer’s concern. Beltran and Torres also cite distraction as one of the reasons for their preference in reading print materials — and they’re not alone.

A poll taken on The Daily Cougar website showed that 82 percent of students prefer reading the text from the book than from a digital medium.

In her interview with the Washington Post, Tufts University cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf said that people need to develop a “bi-literate” brain.

“We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them to learn this slower mode and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It’s both,” Wolf said.

Ultimately, despite the increase of digital reading material, print remains superior in terms of comprehension. Students are taught strategies to aid in comprehending print such as writing notes in the margins and highlighting important text. These strategies aid with comprehension as it allows readers to engage with the text — something that scrolling through text on a digital device does not.

However, with the push for technological integration in schools and the increasing availability of digital reading materials, students must consider how to best approach digital reading in a way that suits their learning styles. As digital reading becomes more integrated with education, students and teachers alike must not only consider how to transfer print strategies to digital mediums, but also what new strategies are needed in order to foster digital reading comprehension.

Opinion columnist Rama Yousef is a creative writing senior and may be reached at [email protected].


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