Books vs. Tablets (Part Three): Literature Review

To finish up this series about comparing the experiential dimension of books versus tablets, let’s look at some articles and research about the issue that touch upon how these different mediums impact learning—understanding, cognition, and retention.

Literature Review

As one might suspect, putting matters of scientific comparisons aside, there are two schools of thought regarding the value of books versus tablets. The first arguing that books will and can never be replaced due to their fundamental sense of familiarity, feel, and natural relationship with the reader; the second argues that books are destined to join the dust pile of history and that tablets will naturally supersede books in a matter of time. Research and studies on this matter seek to differentiate the two less on such visceral reactions and more on issues that can be better qualified and quantified. Let’s look at two reviews.

Twenty-five years ago, Andrew Dillon generated a review of the empirical literature (Dillon, A. (1992) Reading from paper versus screens: a critical review of the empirical literature. Ergonomics, 35(10), 1297-1326.) (Cut-and-paste below)

Dillon breaks down his review into several areas, but notes, all withstanding, that many of the studies are flawed in their research design:

  1. Reading Speed: while noting design flaws that existed in previous studies, Dillon affirms that reading speed is slower from computer screens.
  2. Accuracy: Dillon notes that judging accuracy is more difficult than reading speed per se, as accuracy deals with a number of different issues. If, for example, one is measuring accuracy in terms of “proofreading” texts, then the studies reviewed conclude that screens obtain poorer results than paper. But, the aforementioned studies simply included errors such as extra/missed spaces or double letters instead of common proofreading errors such as misspellings and errors of context and grammar.
  3. Fatigue: Dillon notes that different studies have produced differing conclusions depending upon the subject. While a number have concluded that screens created more eye fatigue, others have found that the difference from fatigue between paper and screens depended upon screen quality.
  4. Comprehension: Post-reading questions were used in many studies to assess comprehension. The studies Dillon reviewed found no discernable difference between paper and screens, though did find a difference between faster and slower readers, with slower readers having greater comprehension. Dillon concluded that comprehension is not adversely impacted when reading from screens versus books and, actually, in certain scenarios may be improved, for example, when writing essay type answers for an open book test using a hyperlinked statistics book.
  5. Preference: Dillon notes that the studies under review in this context did not offer much assistance, as most of the users were relatively “new” users, which may have inadvertently created a negative disposition toward screen reading. Similarly, the preference of books versus screens was heavily influenced by the quality of the paper/books versus the quality of screens. As such, Dillon concludes that preferences are not well understood at that time.

A more recent review, which was widely reported upon in the media, was written by Ferris Jabr in Scientific American: “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper Versus Screens,” April 11, 2013. (Cut-and-paste below)

Jabr notes, digital users previously were reported to have read “slower, less accurately, and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. [Though s]tudies published since the early 1990s have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority have confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens.”

Despite this leveling of differences, Jabr does note continuing differences, which include the tactile dimension of reading in addition to factors that contribute to one’s ability to intuitively navigate a text. This latter dimension also factors into issues regarding content recollection. In this regard, some researchers have found that memory often is linked to the experience of reading, which serves cognitive reflection when attempting to recall the information. For example, one may remember a given fact being in the last paragraph at the bottom of a page at the end of the chapter. Such experiential elements are often lost when using digital texts. Similar dynamics obtain regarding the “rhythm” of flipping through pages and developing a mental map of information in a text.

While participants in recent studies have shown a preference for paper over screens, as Jabr notes, there is information and experiences that cannot be duplicated on paper and can only be relayed via digital means, for example, the Scale of the Universe tool (

All withstanding, a recent CNN review on this subject have shown some alternative finding, which, in many ways are not surprising:

  • “Students overwhelmingly prefer screen to print.
  • “Reading was significantly faster online than print.
  • “Students judged their comprehension as better online than in print.
  • “Paradoxically, overall comprehension was better for print versus digital reading.
  • “The medium didn’t matter for general questions (like understanding the main idea of the text).
  • “But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.”


The review above demonstrates increasing viability for digital reading in a world previously dominated by books and paper texts. However, it is clear, especially with the rise of digital natives, that preferences and, perhaps, learning realities may be changing with the increasing tide of digital content.

Next week, let’s look at a different experiential dimension of eLearning. For this blog, we’ll look at the issues associated with user preferences when comparing photo-realistic animation versus traditional animation.

Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist

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