Do we remember less well when we read from computer screens?

From Maia Slalavitz:

E-books, however, provide fewer spatial landmarks than print, especially pared-down versions like the early Kindles, which simply scroll through text and don’t even show page numbers, just the percentage already read. In a sense, the page is infinite and limitless, which can be dizzying. Printed books on the other hand, give us a physical reference point, and part of our recall includes how far along in the book we are, something that’s more challenging to assess on an e-book.

Jakob Nielsen, a Web “usability” expert and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, believes e-reading does lead to a different type of recall. “I really do think we remember less” from e-books, he says. “This is not something I have formally measured, but just based on both studies we’ve done looking at reading behavior on tablets and books and reading from regular computers.”

He says that studies show that smaller screens also make material less memorable. “The bigger the screen, the more people can remember and the smaller, the less they can remember,” he says. “The most dramatic example is reading from mobile phones. [You] lose almost all context.”

I liked this sentence from the piece:

“We bombarded poor psychology students with economics that they didn’t know,” she says.

I would consider these results “speculative,” but the questions are nonetheless interesting to ponder.  The full article is here.


Was the pun on "poor" intended?

I find it odd how little research this area has so far recieved. I know that Reed College has done some experimentation in this area and spent a year giving everyone kindles to see if it was a decent replacement for traditional books (it wasn't).

I have been a kindle user since version 1 and my personal experience says that i actual remember better with content on the kindle but that is because i actively use the highlighting and notes functionality much more than with a traditional book. I also think i read faster.

If anyone wants to put together a research project on this I would love to be a part of it.

My (older) Kindle sucks at anything with graphs or figure. Useless for technical reading.

I think the newer ones are fine, you can also switch over to reading it on your computer if there are issues. Many of those problems with the older kindles were due to the formatting from the publisher, not the kindle itself. Now that publishers have had time to get the workflow right for digital editions they are MUCH better.

Would be very interesting. I did have a (very anecdotal) experience where I was reading a William Gibson novel on my computer, and then relented and bought the paperback - and found that I had retained very little of the e-experience. But, then again, I regularly read and comment papers from both students (for feedback), and co-authors on the screen, and I feel more... well alert there than when I'm doing it on paper. I think. All very speculative and anecdotal.

But, I wonder also if this is a practice thing. E-readers are very new, so majority of people using them are immigrants, not natives, and thus used to reading codexes. So, this may very well change over time.

It is important to note that any research on this would likely involved people previously accustomed to reading & learning from paper books who are (relatively) new to ebooks.

Let's test a group of college students who went through high school using e-readers before we rush to find that the successful learning techniques of the past are empirically superior to the new.

>This is not something I have formally measured

All righty then. Run along, child, and get back to us.

Since I read your post on the computer screen, I forgot what I was going to say.

I print the blog before I read it.

"Kate Garland, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester in England, is one of the few scientists who has studied this question and reviewed the data. She found that when the exact same material is presented in both media, there is no measurable difference in student performance"


“What we found was that people on paper started to ‘know’ the material more quickly over the passage of time,” says Garland. “It took longer and [required] more repeated testing to get into that knowing state [with the computer reading, but] eventually the people who did it on the computer caught up with the people who [were reading] on paper.

so could it be that our brains are less fooled by electronic media than by print media, which necessitates frequent reading?

I regularly listen to audiobooks on my commute and have found that visual reference points matter. With audiobooks you really have no visual reference that indicates how far you are into the book, but I've found that my brain stores the information I hear with what I see as I walk, ride the bus, or ride my bike. For example, if I go back and listen to a section of the book again, in mind's eye the particular place on the sidewalk I was walking on when I heard that section the first time pops up again.

I don't listen to audio books, but I have a lot of talk podcasts (NPR and such) on my MP3 player. I go for long walks every day and listen to these podcasts. I have the same experience as you, when I think of the piece about the nuclear arsenal or about they Dreyfus affair, I will remember where I was when I listened to it.

I think this is a reflection of humans' innate spatial and geographic abilities. Contestants in memorization contests use "memory palaces" because we are good at remembering places and locations and attach a ton of additional contextual memories to those locational memories.

So be it a passage's location on a page, or your outdoor location while listening to a podcast, those are memories that can attach themselves effortlessly to the passage that we are reading or listening too.

Even online surveys have found that respondents often prefer to have those little progress bars at the bottom or top of the screen, so they have some notion of where the heck they are in the survey. Location location location. We need to know where we are, and are literally disoriented without it.

While recall may be reduced, I find that I read much faster without these "reference points", as if not being aware of the precise ending of a book hurries me along.

In my professional life, I was one of those people who quote the journals. " You make a good point, but in the July1998 issue of the Journal of Occult Topology it says..." After I started using electronic media, I would still remember articles, but it was harder to remember the source, and I would typically quote the date I read it rather than the publication date.
I believe that handling a book creates a mnemonic that imprints the stuff better than the electronic version. Also, with a book it is easy to flip back a few pages which is a nuisance on my Kindle.
I use the Kindle for my first read of stuff; for the things worth a second read I get the cellulose version. Many things should be reread.

The Kindle does need a better non-local movement interface. It is a pain to go back and refresh memory of a past Chapter.

What was this post about again?

You and I are twins separated at birth.

Since we are on the topic of information and formats, maybe the decline in sales of music are partially due to switching away from the vinyl album format. There was something special about going to the music store and going through stacks of albums and finding one that appealed and taking it home. Buying a CD or downloading an MP3 has so much less magic.

Book reader for 30 years & Kindle reader for 1 year.......

I think that we can be trained to absorb what we read on the kindle just as well as a paper book. Based on our age and past experiences with paper/electronic, our absorption rates will differ. For myself, I now use the Kindle's percentage read bar as my physical reference point, which I find for books works equally well, but for academic papers I prefer the Kindle, because it gives me a % read instead of a page number, which often in academic papers is of no physical reference (say the paper you are reading is p.p. 67-88). The Kindle's highlight and notes feature are also, for me anyways, a more efficient way of organizing myself that scribbling notes in the margins.

I can vaguely recall where on a pair of pages a sentence I'm looking for is located (e.g., lower left). So, that's one advantage of a physical book -- I can flip through looking at the lower left part of each page. But I can't usually recall the page number. On the other hand, I can usually remember one unusual word in a sentence, so searching electronically is more efficient most of the time.

I find I tend to skim more when reading electronic communication, but that could just be a function of age.

“Kate Garland, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester in England, is one of the few scientists who has studied this question and reviewed the data. She found that when the exact same material is presented in both media, there is no measurable difference in student performance”

This seems irrelevant; eReaders' reproducing what is in a paper book is uninteresting. eReaders will display dynamic content; users will interact with graphs, charts, video presentations, etc. This is what should be studied.

Sounds a little like the claim that digital audio is "less rich" than vinyl.

"you can't Ctrl+F dead trees"

It is a pleasure to read printed books, but it is more productive to work with PDF files. I don't care if I don't remember the reference, all I need is the knowledge, I can look for the reference later.

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