Why New Research May Have Us Returning to Old-Fashioned Books
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I love books! I love the way they look, smell, and the sometimes smooth, sometimes rough texture of front covers. I love feeling the weight of them in my bag; and the way they pop and crackle when you open one with a stiff spine, after the first time in a while. However, we’ve all heard it before: books are going the way of the dinosaurs. According to the Pew Research Center, in a report published earlier this year, 32% of Americans own an e-reader, 42% own a tablet, and 58% own a smartphone. With all of this mobile technology, it’s become easier than ever to access books at your fingertips. In fact, using mobile apps and tools for reading is often encouraged, even by school districts – for students of all ages – in part because research shows e-books may be beneficial to certain types of students (particularly those with learning or reading deficits).

The Rise of E-Books
And it’s not just elementary and high school students that are tapping more e-book and e-reading resources, but college students as well. It used to be that, if you needed a book (like a text book), you’d go down to the campus bookstore, check Amazon.com, or scour used booksellers for a copy that wasn’t too beaten up. Today, text book publishers are increasingly steering students towards e-book rentals, instead of the real thing. They market these e-textbooks as:

  1. A cost effective alternative (because the cost of rental is a fraction of what it costs to purchase the physical book)
  2. Easy to carry (one iPad can hold a hundred e-textbooks)
  3. Students don’t have to stand in line trying to sell them back at the end of class (access to e-textbooks expires at the end of the rental period)

Not surprisingly, more students than ever before are turning to e-books and e-textbooks to get ahead.  And yet, over the years people have raised questions about how e-technology changes the way we experience traditional activities (like, say, reading); both positively and negatively. We enjoy the portability of e-books, along with the integration of special tools (like dictionaries, interactivity, etc.), but wonder if we’re missing something significant by no longer experiencing the tactile sensation of turning those pages. New research suggests that we just might be.

Physical Books Perform Better?
At the University of Stavanger, in Norway, researchers have been trying to determine whether people perform better on recall tests after reading a physical book or an e-book. What they found, while in its early stages, was a stunning confirmation that people, young and old, retain less information when they read using e-books. In a paper published in 2013, the Norwegian researchers tested 72 tenth graders, requiring one group to read two texts on paper, and another to read the same texts on a lit (computer) screen. The two groups were then tested for reading comprehension, with results showing that the high schoolers who read the paper texts “scored significantly better on reading comprehension” than those that read on the lit screen. A similar test (by the same researchers), this time of adults, showed a familiar trend – although adults who read an e-book were just as likely to accurately remember plot details, they were significantly less likely to remember the sequence of those details, leading to overall lowered comprehension compared to those who read the same text from a physical book.

So, what could be causing us to remember less accurately (or precisely) when we’re reading an e-book? The Norway studies suggest that the tactile sensation of reading a book helps us process information. But how? Think of the way we read physical books, versus e-books. For example, when we are holding a physical book, it may be easier to recall that a pivotal plot turn occurred when we were about one-third of the way through. Many people thumb the pages, or perhaps skim ahead or go back to revisit key scenes. Sometimes we stare at the cover, wondering how well it represents the text as a whole (or even buy books simply because we like the cover!). In other words, we create a “mental map” of everything, from the cover art to the text itself, and it is this combination of conscious (and unconscious) interactions that helps us remember the information more precisely. By and large, we do not interact with e-books in the same way.

Food for Thought
Obviously, no one should abandon their e-readers and e-books just yet. However, this interesting research does provide a case study for why we should be cautious about accepting any wholesale transition to new technology, especially when we are not sure how it might influence the way we process information: this is true for e-books, e-textbooks, and even reading on our computer screens. This, as research suggests that we may not retain as much information when we use technology as we do just reading the old fashioned way. But, it is pretty good news for bibliophiles everywhere.

By Michelle Walker, College Admissions Consultant