A lot has to occur so people can make sense of what they read or hear. For instance, language areas in the brain must interpret words. When words related to smell or sight such as movie popcorn or dark skies, specific areas in the brain become active. In the last 20-plus years, researchers have begun to explore whether text on digital screens is handled differently than text on printed pages. 

As we usually do before we dive into the research, let’s consider what you think is true about the impact digital screens have on comprehension.  

QUESTION: Do digital screens reduce the comprehension of instruction? Select the answer you agree with the most. 

A. No, digital screens do not reduce comprehension, other than how the text is written. 

B. Yes, digital screens do reduce comprehension, other than how the text is written.  

How Do We Answer This Question? 

Before we can answer the research question about whether digital screens reduce the comprehension of instruction, we need to determine how to measure results. For starters, we will need to know how the study will define comprehension. Some questions to pinpoint comprehension might be:  

  • Do people understand what they read (or heard)? 
  • Do people remember the most critical points? 
  • Do people take the actions we want them to take?  

The next step is to select metrics to answer these questions. Table 1 shows the three questions and ways to answer those questions.

Table 1. Three Research Questions and Ways to Answer Them

Research Question

Potential Ways to Answer This Question

Do people understand what they read or heard?

Ask self-check questions about the instruction and analyze the answers

Ask people to review the instruction before it goes live and markup content they don’t understand

Do people remember the main points?

Ask self-check questions about the main points and analyze the answers

Ask people to the review instruction before it goes live and highlight the main points

Do people take the actions we want them to take?

Ask questions at the end of instruction about the actions they intend to take (But people don’t always do what they say.)

Watch people on the job (More realistic.)

Researchers sometimes use more than one way to answer the same question to see if they get the same answer. This is called triangulating the data. It helps you be more certain that your data is real and not just chance. Can you think of other ways to answer these questions? 

The study also needs to determine who it will measure. For example, the audience may be people who work in organizations who take training courses that assist them with job skills. Clearly, though, it will be important to look at the differences between the answers for people who use print versus onscreen materials. 

Digital Screens and Learning 

Results on how screens affect reading vary because the issues are complicated and researchers are studying them in different ways. Researchers from multiple disciplines are studying these questions, and various fields of study are exploring the issue from different points of view. Because this is so critical to L&D, I wanted to discuss what the research can tell us today. 

We know that digital reading is different from reading on paper. We think digital screens reduce comprehension (from paper) so we’re going to count this answer as B for now. What I’ll show next is what numerous studies believe to be true at this moment. Then I will finish this article with an analysis of what we can do now to help people read more easily on digital screens. 

What Are the Issues? 

Table 2 is a list of issues that have been commonly studied and what they found. I didn’t select everything. Just what I thought might impact learning. I hope you think it’s as fascinating as I do!

Table 2. Problems From Reading Screens That May Impact Learning

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Issue

What the Research Shows

Reading Speed

Numerous studies appear to show that reading speed is slower on screens than with paper. One reason could be that longer lengths of text tend to slow down. Print is often in portrait format rather than landscape for this reason. Screens can be in many configurations and designers often have less control over the direction, especially with responsive designs.

Preferences

More people prefer to read in print than on screens. This is despite screen resolutions increasing and backlighting being available on e-readers. Eyestrain and other factors may be to blame or it may be that people are used to reading in print.

Navigation

Navigation of onscreen content is often problematic. This is especially true when readers want to find or revisit specific content.

 

Example: When reading an onscreen PDF, you can only see a section of it at a time. To see more you need to scroll. People reading a printed document can skim, see the entire document and how it is organized, and can easily switch between different sections and pages and revisit sections. (See other sections for impacts on learning.)

 

In addition, e-reading apps may lack tools used as memory and learning aids, such as reviewing document headings and organization, referring to earlier sections, and taking notes where the reader choses.

Memory

Some studies show better remembering when reading from print than reading from screens. Print may help memory in ways that onscreen print may not.  The linearity of print helps memory for location of content and its obvious ordered organization helps people organize what they are learning to long term memory.

Comprehension

Some studies suggest reduced comprehension for onscreen documents over print. The limitations of onscreen navigation may negatively impact comprehension. On paper, it is easy to find and re-read passages and take notes tied to sections. Onscreen delivery may inhibit this.

Technology

Several researchers discussed ways in which digital reading is not equivalent to print reading. Needs: spatial landmarks (such as pages and organization) to mirror print which help comprehension and the ability to take contextual notes. Issues of digital rights management are still an issue. Digital literacy is problematic in United States, United Kingdom, and other countries per OECD.

Yep, this looks bad for onscreen delivery of instructional content. But it’s simply telling us that we must do a lot more to make online content clear and easy to understand. I see many L&D professionals thinking about how to make their content fun. I see far less making their instruction easy to learn from and remember. And research tells us exactly what to do! 

How Can We Improve the Situation? 

Here are ways to improve instructional clarity in any medium. Numbers 5 and 7 come from screen text being harder to read and remember. The rest come from research on making instruction easier to learn from and remember, one of my top areas of interest. (Really?) 

  1. Write instruction using the clearest and simplest language possible. 
  2. Make it look simple and uncluttered. Perception is reality. 
  3. Make the organization painfully obvious.  
  4. Use clear headings and subheadings with words that your readers understand. 
  5. If you have content that people need to remember, make it available in a well-organized, printable format. 
  6. To help people remember the content, provide activities that help them remember it. 
  7. Put less content on each page in online formats. (See 2.) 

Did you read this online? Print this out? 

Did anyone have a hard(er) time reading it online and then print it out? If you had any Ah-Ha moments, please share it in the Comments below to help us all (including me). 

Further Reading 

Dillon, A. (1992) Reading from paper versus screens: a critical review of the empirical literature. Ergonomics, 35(10), 1297-1326. https://www.ischool.utexas.edu/~adillon/Journals/Reading.htm  

Jabr, F. (2013). The reading brain in the digital age: The science of paper versus screens. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens 

Mukherjee, P., & Edmonds, G. S. (1994). Screen design: A review of research. In D. G. Beauchamp, R. A. Braden, & J. C. Baca (Eds.), Visual literacy in the digital age: Selected readings from the 25th annual conference of the International Visual Literacy Association, 112-118. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED370561.pdf 

Myrberg, C. & Wiberg, N., (2015). Screen vs. paper: what is the difference for reading and learning?. Insights. 28(2), 49–54. http://insights.uksg.org/articles/10.1629/uksg.236

OECD Skills Outlook; https://www.oecd.org/skills/piaac 

Spyridakis, J. H. (2000). Guidelines for authoring comprehensible web pages and evaluating their success. Technical Communication, 47(3), 359-282. http://faculty.washington.edu/jansp/Publications/Authoring_Comprehensible_Web_Pages.pdf  

Wastlund, E. (2007). Experimental Studies of Human-Computer Interaction: Working memory and mental workload in complex cognition. https://gupea.ub.gu.se/bitstream/2077/4693/1/gupea_2077_4693_1.pdf

Wastlund, E., Reinikkaa, H., Norlandera, T., & Archerb, T. (2005). Effects of VDT and paper presentation on consumption and production of information: Psychological and physiological factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 21(2), 377-394. http://static.trogu.com/documents/articles/palgrave/references/wastlund%20Effects%20of%20VDT%20and%20paper%20presentation.pdf