Technology continues to impact how we go about our daily lives. More and more ways of doing things are now obsolete due to technological advancement and these changes are beginning to affect the way new generations approach tasks. For example, in October 2011 a video on YouTube went viral where a one-year-old girl swipes her fingers across a tablet’s touchscreen, moving icons at ease, only to move on to a magazine and treat it with the same approach. Confused, she then presses her finger against her leg to seemingly confirm that it wasn’t her finger that was broken, but the magazine!

Did the girl really expect the magazine to behave in the same way as a tablet? Maybe it was just a baby touching everything in sight. Regardless, it raises an interesting question: do the expectations of new, “digital native” generations mean that they are starting to favour digital devices over traditional books? And what about when it comes to revising? Is it now more effective to give pixels our undivided attention, and are the arguments against good old-fashioned books paper thin?

Benefits of Reading from Paper and Digital Devices

Going all the way back to the 1980s, researchers in fields such as psychology, computer engineering and science have investigated the differences between reading on paper and screens. In over 100 of these studies, taken place before 1992, it was found that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. However, more recent studies have found that the speed of our reading on digital devices has improved over time, making the differences between the two similar in this case.

Even with this in mind, there are results from polls, consumer reports and laboratory experiments that indicate digital screens and e-readers do not deliver when it comes to recreating the physical experiences we get from reading on paper. When revising this could prevent you from navigating long texts in an intuitive and effective way.

Compared with paper, reading off screens can also be more draining on our mental resources and make it difficult to recap what we’ve just read. In addition, you may not realise that many people approach tablets and computers in a subconsciously less conducive and productive state of mind to learning than the one they bring to paper.

Developmental psychologist and cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf said:

“There is physicality in reading, maybe even more than we want to think about as we lurch into digital reading—as we move forward perhaps with too little reflection. I would like to preserve the absolute best of older forms, but know when to use the new.”

How Does Your Brain Interpret Written and Digital Text?

We often see reading as an intellectual activity. But as far as your brain is concerned, text is just another physical part of the world we live in. So why does the brain regard letters as physical objects? It’s because it isn’t capable of understanding them in any other way. Maryanne Wolf again explains in her book ‘Proust and the Squid’ that humans aren’t born with dedicated brain circuits for reading.

This may seem strange, but the invention of writing only came about relatively recently in our evolutionary history (estimated around the fourth millennium B.C.). Instead, the human brain improvises a ‘new circuit’ for reading supported by other regions of the neural tissue dedicated to abilities such as vision, spoken language and motor coordination etc.

One of these brain regions is used for object recognition, that helps us distinguish an orange from an apple, whilst still recognising them both as a fruit. In the same way that we identify certain features of, for example, a book (its rounded corners and textured front cover), early forms of writing such as Sumerian cuneiform began with characters being shaped like the objects they represented. Some researchers see traces of these origins in modern-day alphabets (‘S’ as a snake and ‘C’ as a crescent moon). When reading or writing the motor regions in the brain are activated as the brain literally goes through the process of physically writing when reading. This is intensified for complex characters used in the Japanese kanji and Chinese hanzi written language.

Best Way to Revise – Paper VS Digital

Usually, paper books have more obvious typography than an e-readers onscreen text. A paperback gives the reader two clear lanes (the left and right pages) and a total of eight corners with which you can position yourself. This means when revising, you can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text. When you turn the pages of a book, it’s almost like leaving one mental footprint after another.

In contrast, e-readers, smartphones and tablets can inhibit your intuitive navigation of text and make it difficult to map the same journey in your mind. However, a reader of digital text can scroll through seamless streams of words, tap to go forward a page at a time and use the search function to immediately find a certain phrase. Unlike a paper book though, a digital reader would not be able to see the entire context of the text as they’ll be limited to one passage at a time. A useful analogy for this would be if in Google Maps you could navigate street by street and teleport to any address but were unable to zoom out and see the rest of the city/country/world.

In a study from 2013 Anne Mangen and her colleagues at the Norwegian University of Stavanger asked 72 students of similar reading ability to study one narrative of 1,500 words in length. Half of these students read the narrative on paper, with the other half reading them from 15-inch computer monitors. After reading this, the students took part in multiple choice and short answer questions to determine what they gathered. It revealed that students who read the text digitally performed slightly worse than students who read on paper.

This confirms paper books and documents may be better suited to absorption during revision. “The ease with which you can find out the beginning, end and everything in-between and the constant connection to your path, your progress in the text, might be some way of making it less taxing cognitively, so you have more free capacity for comprehension,” Mangen says.

Overview: How to Effectively Revise

Paper books still seem to have a slight upper hand when it comes to revising. So why are we working so hard to make reading with new technologies similar to the experience of reading from paper? Screens, of course, do offer readers advantages that paper cannot. For text as long as a book like ‘Moby Dick’ scrolling or swiping may not be ideal, but websites and media outlets especially have created highly visual articles that depend entirely on scrolling and would not be as attractive in print form. Revising from a digital device also allows you to find more fun and interesting web comics and infographics related to the topic you’re revising, as they make scrolling a strength rather than a weakness. There are environmental benefits to siding with a digital device too as the paper required for books means hundreds of millions of trees are cut down each year.

The popular interactive Scale of the Universe tool might not have been as effective for revision in a paper form. E-publishing companies like Atavist offer tablet readers long-form journalism with embedded interactive graphics, maps, timelines, animations and soundtracks.
When it comes to intensively reading long pieces of plain text when revising, paper and ink may still have the advantage. But text is not the only way to read. Try breaking your revision up with more visually appealing infographics, interactives and articles. See what works best for you!

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