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March 27, 2010, 02:18 PM ET

Students Retain Information in Print-Like Formats Better

A study at Arizona State University has found that students had lower reading comprehension of scrolling online material than they did of print-like versions.

The report, "To Scroll or Not to Scroll: Scrolling, Working Memory Capacity, and Comprehending Complex Texts," described how two groups, of 20 students each, wrote essays after reading materials in either in print-like or scrolling formats. Those given the scrolling versions to read had poorer comprehension of the material.

It is harder to keep track of where information is located within an online document versus the more-apparent page markers in a print-style text, said Christopher A. Sanchez, a co-author of the study. He is an assistant professor of applied psychology at Arizona State.

But the scrolling interface of online documents had little impact on the students in the study with high working-memory capacity, or a good ability to process and retrieve information. Mr. Sanchez said such people could have more cognitive resources able to remember static locations within an online text.

More study is needed on the impact that scrolling has on learning, he said, especially given the prevalence of online tools in the classroom and in distance learning.

"What it could do is give us recognition of how to better design materials so all people learn well, so we don't have this group of low-working-memory-capacity individuals who are behind the curve and are for some reason failing to learn when this material is in this scrolling form," he said.



1. emschles - March 26, 2010 at 12:44 pm

It would be interesting to see a study comparing eReader's and physical text. Those that mimic book formats might do better than scrolling ?????

2. sarcebf9q - March 26, 2010 at 03:23 pm

There goes my photocopying budget!

3. athlwulf - March 26, 2010 at 03:57 pm

I agree with @emschles, but I would go even further. I wonder if there will be a difference between a basic eReader that presents one page at a time with very little location information and a more advanced reader such as the iPad that mimics page flipping and tries to show other visual cues such as the amount of pages from the beginning or end of the book that the reader is.

4. pwoessner - March 26, 2010 at 04:35 pm

Ironic that although I had to scroll to read the article, I was able to spot a typo in the third sentence (versiions).

Our students use Tablet PCs and can "print" online documents into Microsoft OneNote. From there, they can highlight and annotate just like they would a paper copy. It's a great "compromise" and makes digital i.e. scrolling content very similar to paper.

5. koonoo - March 26, 2010 at 05:54 pm

This problem is easily resolved by providing students who do better with the print version the ability to print whatever material at his/her disposal easily and holistically while making them available to the same student online for summary or extract (no scrolling). Why couldn't we have the best of both worlds?

6. mbelvadi - March 26, 2010 at 08:29 pm

The teaser in the "Wired Campus" left out the critical word "scrolling" before "online", leaving the impression (if the reader doesn't click through to read the actual article) that the research found that the study compared online material to print, not two different formats of online material.
Even in the article, the use of the term "print-like" is probably confusing and misleading many readers. From what I read of the actual study, the term page-by-page or even "PDF-like" might give a more accurate impression for those not willing to delve into the details of the study.

7. ygayol11 - March 27, 2010 at 12:53 am

These "findings" are actually very OLD information. I reported a similar study in my dissertation and I graduated in 1999!... Is research in education a matter of "recyling"? Come on...!

Since Kant we know that the parameters time/space are the anchors of "reason" or cognition as we call it these days. If one alters the parameter space from fix to dynamic not even a research study is required to observe these changes, it can be demonstrated in a group dynamic of 15 minutes! Instead consider the adaptability of human brain and observe how blogging, e-portfolios and concept mapping could contribute to "grasp" quickly dynamic information.

8. arrive2__net - March 27, 2010 at 05:14 am

In the study, students with greater Working Memory Capacity were apparently able to compensate somewhat for the difficulty of scrolling. The big finding makes a lot of sense to me because it seems like scrolling through some vast sea of text would make it more difficult to keep track of "where you are" in the document. The non-declarative, contextual info humans usually process automatically would be difficult, it seems to me, and that may interfere with conscious processing. Based on my observations of it, the effect of the formats differences on comparative comprehension may depend on the users purposes and the sophistication of the user. If the user has to compare a table (or text) on one page with a table (or text) on another page, either format would be more awkward than a print out. The user would have to be able to open two or more instances of the document ... or three instances to look at three tables or text. It can also help the user if you train them to look at the scroll bar to keep track of where they are in the document. Still, I think research like this can help identify which format is better for general purposes.

Bernard Schuster

9. ggridley - March 27, 2010 at 04:19 pm

I agree with the findings. I believe it could relate to learning style. While working on my PhD online, I always had to download and print to be sure I got the max from the materials. Of course, it produced boxes of materials and was expensive. I am glad I could take it off at tax time.

10. haohtt - March 28, 2010 at 12:08 am

In inverted (white on black) text and the switching positions and the inconsistent positioning of the images on the scrolling pages could have also added to the cognitive load and contributed to the lower achievement of the scrolling treatment.

11. missred - March 28, 2010 at 02:42 pm

This is an important finding because colleges and universities have invested a lot in on line books. I assumed that my students spend their lives on line but they are not reading academic books.
I have assigned online books for readings which are out of print, to avoid copying a chapter and putting it up on Blackboard. And obviously, the on-line book format is necessary if I want to use more chapters. I've found that students do not get as much out of the online book. They don't print off well, usually pages load slowly. I've found this to be true for professional students (Bschool) as well as undergraduates.

12. snwiedmann - March 29, 2010 at 06:40 am

To sarcebf9q,

You don't have to photocopy, just post online material in document form (things like .rtf files or .doc files) that appear onscreen as distinct, separate pages instead of huge amounts of text that just scroll endlessly.

13. paievoli - March 29, 2010 at 10:52 am

That is just for this generation. I have worked in HE for over 20 years and have seen the use of technology rise even with all the problems and gyrations. Each generation accepts and embraces new technology to help them to learn.
And so it goes....
I also guest lecture at a HS and the students there can't wait to use the new eBooks. They want to know when they will be adopted by their HS's.
Nothing actually helps you learn better. It is your desire to learn that helps you. I always tell my students in HE if you had instructions to a very cool party and they got wet or ripped or whatever I guarantee you would figure out how to get there. They all agree.
Desire transcends anything. If you want something you will find a way to get it. Technology just helps you get there. BTW - I teach technology based curriculum and my books have been on technology - personally I love it.

14. sarcebf9q - March 29, 2010 at 04:06 pm

To snwiedmann,

We do use CLE software to post documents (in different formats, but typically PDF) for students but some faculty still like have hard copies to distribute to their students.

Our school has gone from spending $25K annually on photocopying to under $15K with the implementation of CLE software and using other technology. But that is still about 200,000 pieces of paper our school generates annually for teaching and administrative purposes.

15. casanchez - March 29, 2010 at 07:13 pm

While I usually find it best to stay out of discussions of one's own work, I feel I must interject a few tidbits.

First, those that noticed are correct, this post somewhat misrepresents the intention of this article, it does not compare print vs web, and instead compares scrolling vs. discrete presentations. The logistical importance of print versus web aside, another primary application for this type of research is reading on various size screens (e.g., netbooks, smartphones, laptops), all of which are becoming more and more popular nowadays (both within and outside the educational arena). The main finding here is that these presentation formats do interact with learner characteristics, so manipulation of learning environments can have undesireable effects, independent of motivation, instruction, etc. Text type, color, etc. were also constant across domains in this experiment (E1 and E2), so this should not be a significant factor in inducing additional load for readers.

Finally, @ygayol11...I would love to see the article that you so aggressively suggest I have 'rehashed'. I have a feeling you are referring to more general study of browsing behavior without the distinct evaluation components we have here (e.g., comprehension), and also missing the requisite consideration of individual differences. Feel free to send it to me (c.sanchez@asu.edu), and I would be more than happy to discuss the merits of my study and how this research expands on that existing knowledge, which after all is the goal of science. I am a cognitive psychologist, not just an 'educational researcher' and if a previous study exists which conveys this same message, I have not come across it and would like to reference it in future research. Like I said, I have my doubts, but would be more than happy to discuss them.

16. ohreally - March 30, 2010 at 03:30 pm

Mr Sanchez,
What might this mean, "not just an 'educational researcher"?

17. casanchez - March 30, 2010 at 03:55 pm

I was simply referring to the negative connotation (which I honestly see too much of) that ygayol11 used regarding the perceived lag of educational research and those that do it. Please understand that I do not share this opinion, but perhaps I am too sensitive to this criticism.

18. kcercone - April 02, 2010 at 03:13 pm

I think is a very interesting study- but I think it also depends on several variables- I will start with learning styles. When I read, I like to hold a highlighter in my hand to highlight as I read. I actually have this habit of needing the pen there. When I teach, I have to draw- I teach biology and I can not explain without drawing on the board.
When I read, esp. school material, I do not think I would retain the information with scrolling. I always print anything I need to review.
I saw that you can print into OneNote and highlight while reading- it still would not be the same for me. When I did my PhD, I printed everything and had boxes of files (I see I am not along too!).

I think the research could be interesting if you are all using the same reading tool- the iPad that is coming out may have animations to go along with the material you are reading - maybe bring the biology book to life - now that would be really neat.

But, I still want my book- but then, I am old (old enough to be set in my reading patterns) and I also am not open to reading that way.

Now, the kids of today, if they start that way, in school it becomes a standard method of reading, I bet you would eliminate differences. I think habits, patterns and kinesthetics would have an impact on comparing book reading to scrolling. I do not think you can control enough of the variables to get a real differentiation. The brain has patterns built into it- the neurons have specific pathways in place (like learning how to drive, you went to thinking about it to automatic) - the brain would have to alter its neuronal patterns for this type of reading to be actually compared. The students would need to accommodate to the online reading book by developing the neural pathways- then you can compare to see interpretation. But here again- not all students read the same via a book.
Maybe add in eye movements and how fast they move the eye and how many words they interpret with each eye movement.
Just ideas.....

19. uberstudent_dot_org - April 22, 2010 at 04:28 pm

The study is failing to download so I cannot see it in detail, but if the scrollable text did not also have a mechanism for markup, such as is available in Zotero, it would be very problematic. Me personally, I can read and comprehend *much faster and better* with scrollable text, because I can move the text rather than my eyes as much.

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