February 2018
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TD Magazine

Screen, Paper, Scissors

Print materials trump digital ones as a tool for learning comprehension.

Computers and technology have become an important part of people's lives, both personal and professional. They have become the preferred tool for working and learning, especially among younger generations. But just because people prefer learning one way, does that mean they learn better that way?

Research by Patricia Alexander and Lauren M. Singer attempts to answer that question. "A New Study Shows That Students Learn Way More Effectively From Print Textbooks Than Screens" summarizes the authors' experiment involving 90 college students.


Prior to the experiment, the authors asked students whether they prefer reading digital or print materials for learning, and which medium they use more often. The authors then gave participants four texts to read: two were digital and two were print, around 450 words each. When the participants finished their assignments, the researchers asked them several questions about what they read and on which medium they thought they performed best.

The college students said they prefer to read digitally and can read more quickly on digital formats than in print. They also believed they had higher reading comprehension when reading digital texts.


However, results show that wasn't true: Overall comprehension was better for print materials. Further, the authors explain, "When it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts."

The research results have clear implications for talent development professionals. For example, if it's important for learners to understand the general ideas of something, both print and digital formats are appropriate. On the other hand, if it's necessary for learners to have a deeper understanding of the specifics of something, asking them to study print materials is a better choice.

About the Author
Megan Cole is a research analyst at the Association for Talent Development (ATD). Her primary responsibilities include creating and programming surveys, cleaning and analyzing data, and writing research reports for publication. Prior to working at ATD, she worked as a market research analyst for a marketing company that specialized in association marketing. 

Megan received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Central Florida. She earned a doctorate in communication from Arizona State University. 

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Interesting article, Megan! I tend to prefer digital documents for a few reasons: more portable, less clutter, review faster, search for keywords; however, I've noticed that I remember more about printed materials, especially if underline/highlight and write on them. Want to consider additional "trumps?" Check out this article:
Digital documents might trump printed ones for some disability-based needs. Individuals with low or no vision may utilize an electronic screenreader to access materials. It is not only important to provide digital documents, but critical - and to ensure they are usable. Want to learn more? Check out this article:
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