Modern Life

Print vs. screen: How to remember what you read

Screens are fine for skimming, but for deeper comprehension, you should fire up the printer.

By Garage Staff — September 4, 2018

As many students around the globe head back into classrooms this month, our collective time spent reading is on the rise. And the debate insues: Print vs. screens? Which is the better way to read and learn? 

We intuitively know that reading on a screen feels different than reading on paper, and science agrees. Multiple studies have shown that your brain processes words differently depending on how and where you see them. Some of that comes from the physical experience of flipping a book’s pages, and some of it is from the ways we’ve adapted our screen reading strategies to be more efficient. But consuming information in a print form differs from digital reading in other ways, too. When it comes to retaining complex thoughts, print is a surer way to study.

Understanding the "why"

In part of a 2016 study from Dartmouth, people were asked to read a short story on either a screen or a piece of paper. They were then asked questions about the story. The participants using printed matter scored high on inference questions (66% correct), while screen readers scored higher on concrete questions (73%).

In other words, paper readers understood the more complex themes of the story and were better at explaining “why” something happens (abstract) than “how” something happens (concrete).

Robert Warren/Getty Images

When slowing down matters

While scientists haven’t found conclusive evidence that all kinds of reading is improved with paper, reading printed materials is very clearly better for certain tasks. In multiple studies, scientists have found that people are significantly better at proofreading when they’re reading from a page. You’re more likely to catch a typo or an error if you print something out, likely because your brain is more used to reading more slowly in print rather than hunting for key words and phrases on a screen.

Reading on paper can also help you emotionally connect to the text. A 2015 study from Temple University and the United States Postal Service measured each subject's heart rate, sweat, movement and breathing while reading to determine his or her emotional response. They found that paper readers not only had bigger emotional responses, they also remembered the text better.

And when you read off the printed page, there is no chance that an IM or an email alert or the sudden need to check Twitter will distract you. 

Paper readers not only have bigger emotional responses, they also remember more. 

Saving your brain for bigger thoughts

We all know this truth: Pretty much everything about the online universe is designed to grab your attention away from whatever you’re doing. Fighting these distractions is exhausting — the effort runs down your reserves and tires you out, and that applies to students, too. “If you’re reading on your screen and a pop-up appears for a new email, it takes mental willpower to ignore that,” says Dr. Dar-Wei Chen, a Ph.D. in engineering psychology and a research scientist at Soar Technology who co-authored a 2015 study looking at how screens affect students’ reading comprehension and metacognition.

While digital screens are increasingly common in the classroom and for students, studies have shown that children comprehend more when they read on printed pages. Students read more carefully off printed paper and tested significantly better for reading comprehension when they used printed pages instead of screens. Overall, printed matter has been shown to likely be better for deep comprehension.

One 2014 study, performed by Dr. Anne Mangen from Norway's Stavanger University, found that reading comprehension was significantly better on the page than on the screen. She specifically found that paper readers were better at reconstructing plot points in order. "[That] might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper…is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading," Mangen told The Guardian. She hypothesized that for light reading, screens are fine, but when trying to absorb a complex analysis or literary novel, the printed page is best.

Chen agrees. “If you’re just trying to get a general gist, the screen can be fine,” Chen says. “But if you’re trying to read a little deeper, for a class or something you’re very interested in, paper is the best way to go.”

Read next: Why more and more digital natives are hitting print.