Science Says You Learn Better By Reading on Paper

I accidentally delved into a world of studies on the benefits of learning from display vs. paper.

It turns out academics have been trying to pinpoint the differences between learning from the traditional paperback and a digital screen (laptop/eBook). Pretty interesting stuff, right?

So you may be wondering why the hell I stumbled into this.

You see, I’ve been learning from the same JavaScript book on the internet and in a paper copy. I love my laptop and Kindle, but I prefer reading from the paper copy.

Trouble is, I’m not totally sure why.

Preference for Paper

In 2013, Kretzschmar et al. conducted a study where they tracked the eye movements, brain activity, and the reading speed of participants.

Despite the researchers finding there was almost no difference with reading on digital vs. paper, participants had a profound preference over reading from a book.

Ratings for the pleasantness of reading. (Kretzschmar et al.)

I mean, what a difference between book vs. digital.

Whilst the book preference is interesting, what’s most intriguing is that the older adults group actually preferred reading on a tablet, whereas the young adults preferred the E-reader.

I would’ve thought the younger generation had a preference for tablets, but perhaps the perception of what the device is for is different.

Attitude Problem?

Turns out it may all come down to the attitude and spatio-temporal markers.

Us Millennials have grown up with digital stuff everywhere. First for me was the Windows 95 where I played around with the Encyclopedia brain quiz. Then the GameBoy Color with Pokémon.

What I’m trying to say is that we’ve grown up with digital games. From an early age, we’ve been used to digital screens being used to catch Pokémon, hop into green tubes, and control an orange bandicoot.

Perhaps it’s just more difficult for young people to concentrate on the screen for a long amount of time.

According to a study conducted by Mangen et al. it may all be down to turning pages.

When you look a paper, you have spatio-temporal markers (it’s easier for us to work out where the words are in the space around us) and so this helps aid memory when you turn a page. You obviously can’t turn a page on a screen, so you don’t get this memory aid.

It’s Down to You

Despite my pretty damning report on display learning, I do think there’s something unique about reading on a screen. Whereas a book is static, a website is dynamic.

In my JavaScript book, I’m completely unable to run, test, and play around with the code examples. All I can do is look and read.

In the website version, I can manipulate the code in between the text. This means I get a better hands-on experience, something I need to get used to writing code.

So all-in-all, it depends on the type of learning you’re after. Hands-off? Go for the book. Wanna interact? Go for display.


I’m writing about something that interests me every day for a year. This is day 80 of 365. ✌️