It may save paper, but that online textbook may be lowering students’ grades.
In an Arizona State University study, “To Scroll or Not to Scroll: Scrolling, Working Memory Capacity, and Comprehending Complex Texts,” co-author Christopher Sanchez, assistant professor of applied psychology at ASU, found that certain students are not retaining as much information when scrolling through online documents.
The study found that students had higher comprehension scores on essays they wrote after reading material in a print-like medium. Students with higher memory capacities comprehended material equally well in both print and non-print conditions, while students with low-working memory capacities had more trouble remembering information while scrolling.
Working memory capacity is not a measure of intelligence, but how well someone can multi-task. Someone with low-working memory capacity gets more distracted and cannot focus on many different things at once, Sanchez said.
“For [low-working memory capacity] people, scrolling produces significant problems for them,” Sanchez said. “It poses additional cognitive demands on the reader themselves. For reading comprehension, scrolling was a deficit for those types of people.”
Being one of the first studies in this area, these findings have implications for how students are learning in this technological age. With the recent release of Apple’s iPad and the Kindle e-book, more and more reading may switch to screens from books.
“We really need to understand how people learn, but also how the technology we are using can impact the learner,” Sanchez said. “We should have this technology and be able to use it and access it. And it should not affect the learning process.”
Sanchez’s own interest in the topic began when he was having difficulty remembering information from PDFs. His next project will look at how people retain information from smaller mobile devices, such as smart phones like the iPhone and Blackberry.
UC Davis sophomores John Conway, a physics major, and Kevin Dunn, a history major, both prefer to read homework assignments on a printed sheet of paper rather than scrolling through an online document.
Conway said in his physics classes that all papers are printed out, which works better for him.
“I remember better if I print it out,” Conway said. This follows Sanchez’s reasoning that scrolling through an online document strips memory cues from the reader. Scrolling the cursor through the text removes additional spatial and reference cues, Sanchez said.
Dunn does not look forward to reading articles online.
“I hate reading on a computer – it’s not right,” he said. “I’m very comfortable holding something in my hands.”
SASHA LEKACH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.