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Understanding Ebooks

Say, you’re Homer (the Greek one), and you’ve just put the finishing touches on your latest epic. You’re going to want a book. You’re going to want one so that you won’t have to worry about people mishearing your singing (because microphones haven’t been invented yet) or those pesky barbarians on the road to the next town mugging you and stealing your lyre. If you think about it, a book is a pretty nifty piece of technology. In fact, books are awesome enough to have been in use for something like 5000 years, and not only to still be in use in modern society, but to still be commonplace in it.

They're really expensive

They’re really expensive!

It is probably because books printed on paper have been so reliably awesome for so long that there has been so much controversy surrounding the expansion of reading platforms to include E-reading devices (Kindles or Nooks) and computers. Bibliophiles everywhere are collectively freaking out about the end of printed books, and as a result, a lot of ink has been spilled (Well, maybe not ink. Pixels, maybe? Bytes?) on research to determine how these new formats measure up to our classic, well-loved paperbacks.

Sara Margolin et al.’s study in May of 2013 mentions one study that argued that reading off of screens was better because readers were able to finish passages more quickly. Another argues that, while that was true the information was not as well retained because the hyperlinks found in many online texts present a distraction that divides one’s attention. The list goes on, but until Sara Margolin et al.’s study, none of them had specifically addressed comprehension of the text.

Comprehension is significant because of the way we are believed to understand information as we read. Consider this sentence: “I carried a present into the room strewn with streamers and balloons.” A memory test might ask you to recall what was in the room or what I was carrying. A comprehension test would test to see if you assumed that I was at a party. Because the information of exactly where I am is not in that sentence, you would have to internalize that information and make inferences based upon it in order to arrive at that conclusion.

Most people do not simply recall every word they have seen verbatim (the balloons and streamers); rather, we are believed to create a meaningful abstract representation of what we have read that is based both upon what we have read and whatever information happens to be in our long term memories (the party). Therefore, a simple recall of facts tests how much of the reading has made it into the most superficial levels of that model. A comprehension test, on the other hand, forces us to use that information to make inferences and to think critically, in turn forcing the reader to go deeper into that model to see where the reader has supplemented the information in the text with his or her own knowledge.

Not exactly like this, but you get the idea.

Not exactly like this, but you get the idea.

In the study, researchers had participants read from a print-out of text from a book, as is the case in many classes, from an e-reader, which simulates the experience of reading from paper with a technology called e-ink, or from a computer screen, also commonplace in many classes. I draw emphasis to in-class prevalence because all the participants in the study were students at a 4-year college in New York. They were presented with six texts, half narrative, half expository, in one of the three above formats (chosen randomly), and asked to answer comprehension question about them.

According to the results from Margolin et al., there is not a significant correlation between different presentation formats and comprehension. In fact the only significant variation they found between any of their results was between those who had skipped parts of the reading and those who had not. The “skippers” showed less comprehension. This is shocking, I know.

Okay, let’s back up a little bit. I can already hear all the chorus of “but I like the way books smell!” or “but reading on my laptop is so convenient” or “but I really love my Kobo!” (actually, not ever that last one). Margolin et al.’s results don’t take into account how cool that new laptop skin you bought looks. What the results mean is that if you had the choice to read a book in the same format on an e-reader, a computer, or a book, what you take from the book, your comprehension of the material, will be the same.

Sounds mean, but seriously, who uses a Kobo?

Seriously, who uses a Kobo?


I know for anyone firmly on the side of one platform or another is really disappointed, but think about it! This is a good thing! This means that people are good enough at comprehending things to be able to do it in different contexts. You can rest assured that the next time you skim that article before class, the reason you don’t understand it is not because you read it off your computer, but because you didn’t read half of it! E-readers and computers are not necessarily replacing books, just displaying them from a different platform. Bottom line: go with whatever platform you want, but keep in mind, you actually have to read the words to understand the text.

Yes, really!

Yes, really!


Margolin, S. J., Driscoll, C., Toland, M. J. and Kegler, J. L. (2013). E-readers, Computer Screens, or Paper: Does Reading Comprehension Change Across Media Platforms? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27, 512–519. doi: 10.1002/acp.2930

Categories: Attention, Education, Memory Tags: ,
  1. Meg Giblin
    May 7th, 2014 at 13:31 | #1

    This blog post is really great because it addresses a very common controversy in today’s society. I was very surprised at the results, but as the conclusion states, this is a good thing because it shows that humans do well at comprehending in different contexts. I am also very glad that the author mentioned that when people read, whether on a screen or on a page, people tend to remember the “jist” of the passage, and not the words verbatim. This is a very interesting concept, and this is also very helpful because it decreases the amount of storage needed when comprehending a passage. This article was very informative and I especially enjoyed the ending – “you actually have to read the words to understand the text”.

  2. May 8th, 2014 at 11:51 | #2

    As an avid Kindle user, I really enjoyed this article. I do think ebooks get a lot of unjust resentment simply because people are more used to reading traditional books. I use a Kindle because ebooks are usually much cheaper, especially in the case of textbooks. However I should stop ranting about why I love my Kindle so much, as I’m supposed to be talking about Cognitive Psychology.

    Regarding comprehension and book format, I believe that there are certain factors that should also be taken into account. Each format has its own pitfalls, which vary from person to person. For example, I find it incredibly difficult to focus on a passage when reading on my laptop, as I’m easily distracted and will probably waste time on Facebook. In the case of traditional books, I tend to flip pages until I see how far away I am from the end of what I have to read. Seeing that I have half an inch worth of pages left is always discouraging and can affect how motivated I am. As with my Kindle, I can get distracted simply because I already have so much stuff stored on there. With a daily New York Times subscription and a large backlog of novels to read, I sometimes find myself reading irrelevant texts. An example of this would be from when I was trying to finish reading the “Aeneid”, and I saw a note mentioning Hesiod, a Greek poet. Interested in Greek poetry, I jumped to the Kindle store, bought all an ebook with all of his works, and ended up reading 3000 lines (enough to finish the Aeneid from where I left off!).

    While comprehension does not change across the different mediums, I believe that there are other important factors to explore before choosing how to read a book.

  3. May 8th, 2014 at 12:39 | #3

    I enjoyed reading your article, since I have always wondered if there’s a negative to reading through a screen. Obviously it is more convenient to read through a screen as opposed to always carrying a book around with you. However, I always assumed we could focus better on a page. This article is surprising to me, since there is no real difference between the two. I often read on my Kindle, and the results of this study make me more confident that I can continue to do so in the future.

    I wonder if there are any other downsides to reading on a screen, outside of comprehension. For example, people might find it easier to read for longer periods of time when reading a page, due to the distractions on a screen or the eye strain that screens can cause. For these reasons, it could still be better to read off a page when doing an assignment or reading for fun. In the end, I am shocked to hear that we can comprehend words on a screen as well as words on a page, which is a good sign for our future.

  4. May 8th, 2014 at 16:37 | #4

    I thought this post delved into a very important issue, because I have always wondered if reading on my computer really does make it more difficult for me to comprehend. I find this information to be difficult to accept, since I have always had trouble reading things on my computer as compared to reading in a book. I wonder if the way that you read has anything to do with it. If the students were told to take notes on the readings, would they be better at comprehending. Also, if students were to read a book on a tablet, where they could maybe annotate on the book, would they increase in comprehension because of the connections that they can make/engage with the reading, since this would create a stronger memory trace for the important information. I wonder, also, whether people just have difficulty focusing on a computer screen, overall. The computer screen format is very different from a book and the pressure to be distracted by other things (not just hyperlinks) but Facebook and other forms of social media is much higher. When told to focus on comprehension, individuals may be able to, with more concerted effort for the computer, focus on and comprehend the information, but I wonder if this would be the same in everyday reading on the computer for classes, where there is less consequence for not reading for comprehension and it is much easier to just switch to Facebook (where it wouldn’t be with an eReader in a lab experiment because the only option is to read). It would be interesting to see whether these factors would have had an effect on the results and in real life settings.

  5. May 8th, 2014 at 18:39 | #5

    I thought this was a very well written article! It is very relevant to current day debates and I know within my family there is a big kindle vs. book debate. The introduction and transitions in this article were very clear and there was no point where I was confused about anything. After reading this post I wonder about further testing to see if there is a more definitive difference between electronic reading and paper. My question would be about greater information comprehension long term. How long after the texts were read did the researchers ask their questions and could that be manipulated to determine if comprehension is retained long term on an electronic versus paperback book. Then again I can understand that paying attention may be the cause of any drops in comprehension, not the way the book was read. Overall, I thought this was a great blog post, I would just like to know a little more about the study and if they manipulated short term comprehension vs. long term comprehension.

  6. May 8th, 2014 at 19:36 | #6

    I really enjoyed reading your post. As a person who took the MCATs a few weeks ago on a computer, I’m glad to retroactively find out that reading on a screen is not detrimental for comprehension.
    It certainly surprises me to learn this is true. I also feel like I miss out when reading on screens, especially larger ones like desktop monitors. A question I have is how fatigue works in both cases, reading on screen and reading on paper. Not an exclusively cognitive psychology question, however it’d be interesting to know. I definitely feel like I get more tired reading off a screen than a regular book. But this again might just be a personal preference. I’m definitely interested in looking into more research in this area. It’s certainly relevant. I’m not too worried that books will ever go out of style though!

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