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Do We Comprehend, Remember, and Perceive Texts Differently When Reading Them on a Screen Instead of Paper? The Research Provides the Answers

Is it an e-book or a paper book, either electronic or printed training materials? I turn to the research side for answers. The e-Read survey can be used to find answers. I also add 5 recommendations that are taken into account when creating digital learning environments and creating e-courses

This blog post was originally published in Estonian by Katre Savi

On 9 April 2020, Merle Koik wrote the opinion piece An E-Book vs a Printed Book – Which One to Prefer? for the EPALE blog. The post invited readers’ comments on whether they prefer to read an e-book or a printed book and why that is their preference. Among the respondents, there were both e-book and printed book favourers. Additionally, a new question arose: would a similar preference apply fo trainings and study materials?

I want to elaborate on the topic based on the research done by E-READ (Evolution of reading in the age of digitization), a European-wide research network. The final report of that research was presented as a joint statement of scientists or the Stavanger Declaration in 2019.

E-READ is a research network that acted within the framework of the program European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) and united more than 120 scientists and researchers from 33 countries and from different scientific fields, including neuroscience, arts, and humanities, social sciences, etc. The main aim of the work of the E-READ research network was to reduce the speculations accompanying the impact of digital reading and to replace them with empirical evidence as well as to develop an evaluation model for reading texts on paper and on screens.


So, Which One to Prefer? The Research Provides the Answers

The research of the E-READ addressed reading practices, paying specific attention to the differences between reading on paper versus on screens. A meta-study carried out over a span of four years, in 2016-2019, which was based on the results of 54 studies with a total of more than 170,000 participants, specifically focused on the topic of how readers comprehend and remember the written text when reading it on the screen compared to reading it on paper.

As the main conclusion of the research, the scientists pointed out that while digital technologies facilitate information transfer and presentation, reading printed text has a clear advantage when the aim is to gain knowledge and understand difficult material better. This advantage of reading information from paper increased further when the reader was under time pressure.

Printed texts and screens each have their advantages, which manifest themselves in different ways for different age groups and when used for different purposes. Digital technologies offer a myriad of possibilities for creating, accessing, storing, and sharing information; at the same time, it was proven that processing the content of the text is still more efficient when reading it on paper. Reading printed texts also has the benefit of cognitive acquisition of the content – more in-depth comprehension of the text is improved, vocabulary usage and memory are enhanced. It was highlighted in the research that students feel more confident when learning from textbooks and other printed study materials, because this way, they can focus more on the content of the material, instead of being distracted by the features of the digital application or device.


E-Learning Affects the Environment

Another aspect to pay attention to is the impact that e-learning has on the environment. Every correspondence and posting, uploaded study material or web course, solving tasks in an online environment, and other activities in the digital world increase the amount of digital waste, which is an ever-growing problem for the environment. On the contrary, when used responsibly, printed materials are a good example of environmental sustainability and a well-functioning circular economy; paper is an easily recyclable and reusable raw material.

The results of the E-READ research have captured the interest of a wide audience of decision-makers of the field of education, teachers, publishers, and software manufacturers since IT continues to be one of the most rapidly developing sectors; and new digital learning resources and environments are constantly being launched. In the current difficult time, when any kind of educational activity has been labeled as ’e-learning’ and, what’s more, all communication is mainly taking place using electronic channels, it is relevant to think about what we are using, for what purposes, and how.


5 Tips for Developing Digital Learning Environments and Courses:

  • Think beforehand which technology is the most appropriate for presenting the content being taught, which digital tools to use and on which conditions, so that they would support the achievement of the best learning outcomes
  • Take user needs, not the technological possibilities, as the starting point; i. e., choose the format and the platform accordingly, e. g., an audio lecture on a podcasting platform, a real-time video lecture, a seminar involving group work, an open discussion, etc.
  • Think about how to involve and instruct the learners, including in situations where the learners might have no experience or very limited experience when using the chosen platform or technology (downloading the application, creating an account and logging in, the differences of the application on an Apple vs a Microsoft device)
  • Consider using the printed options to an equal extent with the screen options. Printed study materials have certain proven advantages, e. g., collecting different sources and combining them into a whole, underlining, writing in the margins, and other techniques facilitating the acquisition of a text
  • Simultaneously with the learning content, the learners have to be taught strategies for acquiring and consciously using analytical and reflective reading habits when learning from screens

Comprehensive information on the research Evolution of reading in the age of digitisation (E-READ) can be found on the program’s website at

Photo: Intergraf


Katre Savi is the CEO of the Association of Estonian Printing and Packaging Industry and EPALE ambassador in 2020. Previously, she has worked as the manager of service design for the public sector at the Estonian Design Centre and as the head of the Development Centre of Information Systems at HITSA (the Information Technology Foundation for Education). She graduated from Tartu University, having specialized in sociology, and has expanded her knowledge through many different pieces of training.

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