Does reading comprehension suffer when learners switch from paper to screens? This question has been studied from multiple angles, with varied findings. There’s no definitive answer, but for eLearning professionals, a better question might be: How can eLearning design maximize learning potential and mitigate potential barriers to comprehension?

Anyone considering implementing eLearning—or converting existing training to eLearning—should consider the differences in how learners take in and process information when using digital means (like desktop or tablet computers) versus reading printed material, and design accordingly!

Learners perform better on paper

So, what are those differences? A 2013 study compared participants’ reading comprehension when reading on paper versus on computer screens. It found that people performed better on reading comprehension tests when they read from paper. The researchers offered several possible explanations for why this is the case.

Scrolling: The researchers cite several studies that support the contention that scrolling interferes with reading comprehension because it affects the readers’ mental representation of the text. In simple English, that means that people often recall text by picturing where on the page they saw it. When learners scroll through multiple screens of text, the text is not fixed in a location, and the learners cannot form a mental picture of where a specific passage is located, as they can when reading on paper.
When reading on digital screens, learners can only see one screen of text at a time. Partial or entire text: When holding books or printed documents, learners can leaf through and skip from page to page—the entire text is available to them at once. They lack the physicality of a book or printed document, which also gives them a tangible way to tell how far they have progressed and how much they have left to read.
Myth of multitasking: When answering reading comprehension questions about a digital text, learners have to switch back and forth on the screen between the text and the question. This type of multitasking places additional demands on the learners, possibly interfering with comprehension of the text. Considerable research has shown that, when people think they are multitasking, they are actually switching between tasks, and they lose efficiency with each switch. But when reading a paper text, whether answering questions on a digital screen or on an additional piece of paper, learners can have both the text and the questions in front of them at the same time, so multitasking is not required.
Bias: The researchers cite a common perception that digital media are more useful for short messages, while serious study “should” be done using paper media. Learners holding this bias are less likely to focus deeply on the material they are reading on-screen. However, this condition is difficult to study objectively or measure.
Visual fatigue: People who spend a long time reading a tablet or computer screen often report visual fatigue or headaches, which can interfere with reading comprehension and recall, or may simply cause learners to prefer paper. Electronic readers (eReaders), such as Kindles, that use electronic ink and reflect light, rather than emitting light, cause less visual fatigue. Since most available research groups computers, tablets, and electronic readers into a single category, additional research that looks at eReaders and paper might provide useful insight.