The importance of paper in literacy and learning
Technology is an integral part of many facets of our lives. The expansion of broadband, smartphones, and portable technology has changed how we communicate, access information, work, and learn.
While many of these changes are positive, there is growing evidence that this isn’t universal. Research shows an increasing reliance on digital methods and resources may be negatively affecting the ability to learn and remember information and may impact mental and physical health.
We examined 54 studies involving more than 171,000 readers that compared reading from digital vs. printed text. The analysis found that comprehension was better overall when people read printed vs. digital texts.
Similarly, a study involving millions of high schoolers in the 36 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that those who use computers heavily at school “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.” Another analysis revealed that fourth-grade students (9 to 10 years old) “who used tablets had reading scores 14 points lower than those who never used them—a differential equivalent to an entire grade level.”
A psychologist at the University of Maryland discovered that although students think they learn more reading online, tests show that they actually learn less than when reading print.
The benefits of paper-based learning materials aren’t restricted to reading: writing on paper rather than typing on a keyboard can also produce better results. A 2014 study compared the outcome of students taking lecture notes by hand with those who took notes on a laptop. Students who took longhand notes performed better on both factual and conceptual questions.
The authors of the study concluded that “laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even — or perhaps especially — when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note taking.”
There is growing concern about the impact of digital devices on mental health. With devices now being used by students in school as well as outside the classroom, there is little respite from the constant stimulation they deliver. Paper-based learning materials, in addition to providing cognitive benefits, also provide a break from digital.
A University of Washington study found that students who used paper-based planners were less likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. The study involved 264 undergraduate students who were randomly assigned to use either paper-based vs. digital planners. The researchers found that the students who used the paper-based planner reported lower levels of anxiety and depression.
Digital devices also impact sleep quality. A study conducted by Harvard Medical School researchers found that those who read from a tablet took longer to fall asleep, had less REM sleep, and felt less rested in the morning.
Poor sleep quality can bring with it negative health consequences, including mental well-being, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Digital educational tools are very much in their infancy. A growing body of research suggests that a switch to electronic learning materials from paper-based materials may be detrimental to students’ ability to learn and remember information, as well as to their overall health and well-being. Learning and literacy are of immense societal importance, and decisions must be informed by solid and unbiased scientific research.