April 28, 2019 · theory cognitive science of learning

Why Reading on Paper Is Often Better Than Screens or Listening

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What is the best way to engage with a text? Reading on paper? Reading on a screen? Listening to an audio recording of the text? Does it even make a difference? Let:

Studies suggest that {Rp > Rs} for retention and understanding. One recent meta-analysis (Delgado et al, 2018) suggested that Rp yields consistently better comprehension results in a variety of conditions. For instance, where there are time constraints to the reading task, Rp is better. When reading informational or mixed info/narrative texts, Rp is better. (Interestingly, Rp when reading narrative texts held no significant advantage over Rs.) When Rs, many students think they are more competent than they are (they are "overconfident")(e.g. Lauterman & Ackerman, 2104; Porat, Erez, et al, 2018). The results tell a consistent story of the slight but real advantage of Rp for learning.

The science of L is interesting in part because some people seem really worried about it. Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham apparently "has been asked this question a lot": Is listening to an audio book "cheating"? Willingham's simple answer is: no, L is pretty much the same as R in most cases, although you might get different and crucial information (tone, pace, etc.) from an audio performance of a text that you aren't able to decipher from the printed words.

I offer two brief claims about L in a learning context:

  1. If L replaces Rp/Rs for textual analysis tasks, it seems clear that L will be inferior. The analogy is this: imagine an audio recording of a comic book. Images in comic books are laid out in a way that encourages the eyes to wander or travel back and forth, making connections and re-iterating prior panels. Similarly, in textual analysis, you don't simply want multiple readings of the text, you want to establish structural qualities of a text spatially. I think this would be done more efficiently by annotating the printed text. Comprehension is different than analysis. So in a literature course where the goal is to understand the structural qualities of the text, {Rp > L}.
  2. L encourages multi-tasking, and therefore begins to resemble Rs insofar as it encourages people to be overconfident and to "read" in distracting situations like while they are doing chores or driving. Nora Caplan-Bricker has an interesting take on the rise of audio books: that their convenience is wonderful, except that it also contributes to a larger trend toward erasing the difference between work and leisure, since we can now learn and read "for pleasure" even as we are accomplishing mindless tasks that a laboring life requires, like commuting to work. We can always be productive, which is a sort of problem. But even more, she notes, the audio book phenomenon tends to colonize "every small task—walking to the grocery store, browsing the aisles—that once created space for thinking about nothing." Habitual audio-book listeners (and smart phone users in general) have less time to let their minds wander and be bored, which is at the root of creativity.[^1]

Works cited

Caplan-Bricker, Nora. “Successful People Listen to Audiobooks | Nora Caplan-Bricker.” The Baffler, 25 Apr. 2019, https://thebaffler.com/latest/successful-people-listen-to-audiobooks-caplan-bricker.

Delgado, Pablo, et al. “Don’t Throw Away Your Printed Books: A Meta-Analysis on the Effects of Reading Media on Reading Comprehension.” Educational Research Review, vol. 25, Nov. 2018, pp. 23–38. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.edurev.2018.09.003.

Gasper, Karen, and Brianna L. Middlewood. “Approaching Novel Thoughts: Understanding Why Elation and Boredom Promote Associative Thought More than Distress and Relaxation.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 52, May 2014, pp. 50–57. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2013.12.007.

Heidegger, Martin. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Translated by William McNeill and Nicholas Walker, Reprint edition, Indiana University Press, 2001.

Lauterman, Tirza, and Rakefet Ackerman. “Overcoming Screen Inferiority in Learning and Calibration.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 35, June 2014, pp. 455–63. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.02.046.

Porat, Erez, et al. “Measuring Digital Literacies: Junior High-School Students’ Perceived Competencies versus Actual Performance.” Computers & Education, vol. 126, Nov. 2018, pp. 23–36. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2018.06.030.

Willingham, Daniel. “Is Listening to an Audio Book ‘Cheating?’” Daniel Willingham--Science & Education, http://www.danielwillingham.com/1/post/2016/07/is-listening-to-an-audio-book-cheating.html. Accessed 28 Apr. 2019.


[^1]: (And, if you go in for Heidegger, then boredom is at the root of self-consciousness itself. Digital distractions literally erode the sense of the self. See (Heidegger, 1983/2001), and I would say just the chapters on boredom, but really, see the entire text.)