Rethinking classroom technology

Following recent findings by research psychologists Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, which showed that students who took handwritten notes did better than those who took notes on their computers, new research indicates still further that too much technology in the classrooms harms students’ ability to learn.

As millions of dollars are spent on increased investment in classroom technology, including students’ use of iPads and e-textbooks, it’s assumed that the learning environment in the classroom should reflect the high-tech realities of the digital culture in which students and their parents live. Working on this presumption, the state of California passed a law in 2009 requiring that all college textbooks be available in electronic form by 2020. Following suit, the state of Florida passed legislation in 2011 requiring public schools to convert their textbooks to digital versions.

“Given this trend,” write Patricia Alexander and Lauren Singer of the University of Maryland, “teachers, students, parents and policymakers might assume that students’ familiarity and preference for technology translates into better learning outcomes. But we’ve found that’s not necessarily true.”

As researchers in learning and text comprehension, Alexander and Singer have focused on the differences between reading printed texts and digital media. “While new forms of classroom technology like digital textbooks are more accessible and portable,” they write, “it would be wrong to assume that students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it.”

Although students expressed a preference for reading on screens and claimed that they performed better when they did so, the research proved, contrary to such claims, that students’ actual performance suffered considerably when digital media was used instead of printed texts.

“From our review of research done since 1992, we found that students were able to better comprehend information in print for texts that were more than a page in length.” Alexander and Singer argue that this “appears to be related to the disruptive effect that scrolling has on comprehension.” Surprised by the lack of research done in the past to test the comparative level of comprehension associated with reading print and digital media, they conducted three separate studies to explore college students’ ability to comprehend information on paper and from screens.

The studies shed new light on the differences between reading printed and digital content, highlighting the gap between student perception of the efficacy of their study habits and the empirical evidence which contradicts that perception.

Although students overwhelmingly preferred to read digitally, and although they read faster when reading from a screen, believing that therefore their comprehension was better, the results showed clearly that overall comprehension was better when the students read from printed texts.

The research suggested that digital media worked as well as print when dealing with superficial levels of cognitive engagement, but Alexander and Singer write that “when the reading assignment demands more engagement or deeper comprehension, students may be better off reading print.” Since this is so, they suggest that teachers should make students aware that their ability to comprehend assignments may be influenced by the medium they choose.

For those tradition-minded souls who have not leapt onto the digital bandwagon, this latest research will come as no real surprise. As with the earlier research showing that handwritten notes are better comprehended than typed notes, these findings merely prove that true education is about taking one’s time, not wasting it. It means slowing down enough to understand what’s being taught. It is only then that students will become attracted to truth and not distracted by trivia.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.