The pandemic caused the dynamics of learning to change as we had to adapt and move from classroom learning to online learning. That meant we also turned to digital texts and multimedia structures as part of that online learning.
Researchers have been studying how electronic communications compare to traditional print in terms of learning. One such researcher is Naomi Baron, Professor of Linguistics Emerita at American University. She primarily had two questions to answer. Is comprehension the same whether a person reads a text onscreen or on paper? Are listening and viewing content as effective as reading the written word when covering the same material?
In Dr. Baron’s book How We Read Now the answers to both questions tended to be No. And some of the reasons are related to a variety of factors, including diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, and a tendency to multitask while consuming digital content.
To the first question on whether comprehension is the same, much research has shown that when reading texts of several hundred words or more, learning is generally more successful when it is on paper than on screen.
The benefits of print especially stand out when the need for mental abstraction is required such as drawing inferences from a text. Print reading also improves the likelihood of recalling details especially when reading texts of several hundred words or more.
Some of the differences between print and digital have to do with paper’s physical properties and the literal laying on of hands to manipulate the information and the layout of linking our memory of what we have read to where it was in the book.
But also of importance is the mental perspective. This theory states that people approach digital texts with an attitude better suited to informal social media and they devote less mental effort to it than when they are reading print.
The second question on whether listening and viewing content is as efficient as reading the written word also shows that print is more effective for most learning.
To maximize mental focus, research is showing that when adults read news stories or transcripts of fiction, they remember more of the content than if they listen to identical pieces.
There were also similar results found of research on university students reading an article versus listening to a podcast of the text. A related study confirms that students do more mind-wandering when listening to audio than when reading.
And research from video versus text reflects the same as the audio. Those who read texts showed lots more mental assimilation of the material than those watching videos. The researchers theorize that videos are associated with entertainment and not learning.
A synopsis of the research results shows that digital media has common features and user practices that hamper learning. These would include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a tendency to multitask, lack of a physical reference point, reduced use of annotation and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard or viewed.
As Dr. Baron recaps in her book, digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles. However, for boosting learning where mental focus and thinking are called for, educators and parents should not assume all media are the same.
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