In today’s world, students are pushed to learn more on computer screens than books. However, a recent study from Columbia University’s Teachers College reveals that students learn better from the printed page than they do from digital media.
The Columbia researchers reported the first use of event-related potential (ERP) measures to identify text engagement differences when reading digitally or in print. An ERP is the measured brain response that is the direct response to a stimulus.
In neuroscience, an essential ERP feature called N400 is characterized by a distinct pattern of electrical activity that can be recorded non-invasively from the scalp. It is a component of time-locked electroencephalogram (EEG) signals.
The researchers connected a high-density EEG to measure brain activity in 59 middle school (grades 5-8) student volunteers. They then had the students read from pages and screens. After that, each student completed a variety of tasks measuring reading comprehension.
Their findings provide evidence of differences in brain responses to texts presented in print and digital media, including deeper semantic encoding for print than digital texts.
From the Abstract:
“Depth of semantic encoding is key for reading comprehension, and we predicted that deeper reading of expository texts would facilitate stronger associations with subsequently-presented related words, resulting in enhanced N400 responses to unrelated probe words and a graded attenuation of the N400 to related and moderately related words. In contrast, shallow reading would produce weaker associations between probe words and text passages, resulting in enhanced N400 responses to both moderately related and unrelated words, and an attenuated response to related words. Behavioral research has shown deeper semantic encoding of text from paper than from a screen.”
That being said, “the observation of a potential print advantage does not negate the value of rapid access to information that could be supported by digital reading. It may be that classroom practices should strategically match reading strategies and mediums to task, such that printed media are employed when deeper processing is required while digital access to text is utilized for other needs.”
Of course, observations of 59 students should not dictate the future of teaching. However, the results of their study tell us everything that some of us homeschoolers already knew. Books are better!
Despite the economic advantages of ebooks and the fact that they don’t take up much space, educators should encourage practices that expand the mind and eliminate anything that hinders learning. This study shows that digital media doesn’t have to cancel out the printed page. We still need libraries just as much as computer labs.