Paper or pixels?
October 27, 2005 10:53 PM   Subscribe

Is there any disadvantage in terms of long-term retention of information when studying off of a computer display, as opposed to studying from notes on paper?

I'm interested in any formal studies or personal experiences people have had with studying from notes on a computer, compared to notes on paper (either written or printed out). Is there any truth to the notion that "you just remember it better if you read it on paper?"

Has anyone tried it both ways? If you're a die-hard paper person, I'd like to know why.
posted by Brian James to Education (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There was a bit about this in Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot where the author stated evidence about paper having the advantage.

Personally, I thought it hokum. I'd been working on the same screenplay (on my laptop) for quite some time with no breakthrus and running in circles. I printed it out to test the theory and... had major breakthroughs. I'm a convert as a result and now edit on paper always.
posted by dobbs at 11:13 PM on October 27, 2005

Believe it or not, I am set to launch a new blog on this very topic on November 15th. I am a big believer in paper. In fact, if the computer came before the printing press and books, think of how fascinated we would be by an advancement that would allow the collation of comprehensive information in a nicely bound "book." This book could be packed with information on one - or many - topics, be full of color pictures, graphs, self-tests, etc. - and it's completely portable with no need for power, laptop batteries, booting up, etc. Wow!

posted by Independent Scholarship at 11:26 PM on October 27, 2005

I'm a big believer in paper. However, I don't believe it's necessarily because it's easier to read, but because it's easier to use. With paper you can cross out, make annotations, and get immediate feedback from yourself. With the computer, sure, there are annotation tools, but they're clumsy and easily lost in a muddle. The directness and the spatial nature of paper is its advantage.
posted by wackybrit at 1:05 AM on October 28, 2005

I'm not sure this is entirely on topic, but there have definitely been studies that show actually WRITING out your notes is a more effective method of studying...although this discussion seems to only be about reading notes (in which case, I'm pretty sure paper's the can annotate, flip quickly, etc...), if you're talking about the best way to study, handwriting is the best way to go. This is especially true if you'll be handwriting your exams or whatever you're studying for...which I'm assuming you will be. You're best able to reproduce info on an exam in the same way you studied if you'll be handwriting your answers, you'll be best served by studying using handwriting. This works even better if you are able to process the info you're trying to opposed to just recording everything by rote. Condensing and simplifying your notes is an effective way of doing this...
posted by johnsmith415 at 1:13 AM on October 28, 2005

I agree. Definitely paper. There have been lots of psychological studies (sorry, don't have any references) which show that concentration levels and attentions spans are lower when reading onscreen compared to paper. And personal experience backs up what johnsmith415 said -- I take information on board more effectively if I write it down. I guess it has something to do with forcing more of your brain to focus on it, but that's coffee-table science so don't quote me! Interestingly, if a little off-topic, I remember reading an article which claimed that when writing, you retain things written in green ink best of all colours...

Of course, this assumed you're comaring like with like -- i.e. big blocks of plain text. An electronic resource with lots of intereactive options could easily offset the disadvantages of working from screen. I guess it all depends what you're studying and how you prefer to work.
posted by londonmark at 1:44 AM on October 28, 2005

Fairly well controlled usabiltiy studies have shown that people read about 20 wpm faster from printed material than they do from standard computer monitors, that they are better at proof reading printed material and that they tend to prefer reading from paper.

Consider also the amount of information that can be taken in at once. My 20' monitor can just about display 2 a4 pages worth at a time. On my desk there is room for about 10 times this amount.
posted by rongorongo at 2:16 AM on October 28, 2005

Part of it might be how we're used to using the two media. When I'm on the net, I'm used to scanning quickly through articles and find it hard to actually concentrate fully on something.

There might be more to it than that though.
posted by lunkfish at 2:56 AM on October 28, 2005

I am absolutely convinced that it's easier to find mistakes or typos on paper than it is on screen. Or at least that there's a class of mistakes that is easier to see on paper than on screen.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:15 AM on October 28, 2005

I actually find that when programming, just the act of printing the work out, and not even necessarily reading it, helps me.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:17 AM on October 28, 2005

In addition, material is more easily recalled in contexts similar to the one where it was learned. In other words, if you're writing an exam on paper, the similar setting (paper, desk, pen, etc.) helps to trigger your memory of the first setting (paper, desk, pen) where you studied, and thus the material you studied.
posted by duck at 6:05 AM on October 28, 2005

I'd love to be paperless, but paper still has advantages that I haven't been able to resolve. I like putting notes in the margin, or additional comments between the lines. If I don't understand the math I'll work through it and stick a folded piece of graph paper where my problem appeared. PDF doesn't let me do this (though I think Acrobat on Windows does - but only if the PDF author excplicitly allows it!).

When I'm figuring something out I'll often do rough graphs showing how things peak or oscillate or roll off as different variables change. I haven't yet seen an application that works properly, though I'm tempted to try a tablet PC.
posted by substrate at 6:35 AM on October 28, 2005

I wonder if there's been a study that compares retention of info read from a monitor versus paper among people of different ages. I have always thought that part of my problem with reading off a computer screen is that it's not something I grew up with. Maybe the concentration and retention of information read from a monitor, as well as ease of use with annotation tools, comes easier to those who have used a computer their whole lives?
posted by amro at 8:04 AM on October 28, 2005

JAMA. 2002 Jun 5;287(21):2851-3.
Paper or screen, mother tongue or English: which is better? A randomized trial.
Gulbrandsen P, Schroeder TV, Milerad J, Nylenna M.
Free online

Deborah Stone, Sylvia K. Fisher, John Eliot, Adults' prior exposure to print as a predictor of the legibility of text on paper and laptop computer, Reading and Writing, Volume 11, Issue 1, Feb 1999, Pages 1 - 28
Free online

Journal of Educational Computing Research
Issue: Volume 23, Number 3 / 2000
Pages: 237 - 255
The Influence of Cognitive Load on Learning from Hypertext
Dale S. Niederhauser, Ralph E. Reynolds, Donna J. Salmen, and Phil Skolmoski
Subscription required

For a start...
posted by INTPLibrarian at 8:35 AM on October 28, 2005

As always, Malcolm Gladwell has a take. The Social Life of Paper from The New Yorker. Not exactly what you're asking -- he's focusing on air-traffic controllers -- but close.
posted by occhiblu at 8:52 AM on October 28, 2005

I always read longer material and edit on paper. Somehow looking at a computer puts me into TV mode -- passive, not too engaged, etc. I think with paper, I have better retention because I can visualize the paper afterwards, the notes I made, etc. Seems to help make it stick to actually write on something and not just move electrons around.
posted by Rumple at 1:41 PM on October 28, 2005

If nothing else, text on paper is much easier to read than text on screen. The effective resolution of paper is much higher (meaning small text is harder to make out; this may account for the 20 wpm drop-off mentioned above) and because it's not a backlit technology, eyestrain isn't as much of a problem. Related to the resolution issue, more text can fit comfortably on a sheet of paper than a comparably-sized monitor.

Whether this has anything to do with long-term retention is debatable; psychological factors like context may take precedence in such a case. But I can't imagine the extra work required to read off a screen would help your retention.
posted by chrominance at 7:57 PM on October 28, 2005

(sorry, small text is harder to make out on a screen)
posted by chrominance at 7:58 PM on October 28, 2005

Data point: when I work as an architect, the only way of catching mistakes in plans is by plotting them out and marking them up by hand. Regardless of scale, errors that you would never catch onscreen just leap out at you on paper.
And this coming from somebody who hates paper and wishes everything was digitized.
posted by signal at 8:22 AM on October 31, 2005

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