Intentional Design for On Screen Reading

Walsh, G. (2016) Screen and Paper Reading Research – A Literature Review. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, Vol.47(3), p.160-173

As more students move into on-line courses and as more faculty consider incorporating open educational resources (O.E.R) into their courses, the impact of screen reading and learning material design on reading comprehension and overall learning is of essential consideration.  Walsh (2016), desiring to help academic librarians gain knowledge on issues of online reading, examines the current research (last 6 years) with regards to reading comprehension and the screen versus paper debate. Overall Walsh found no consistency in research design among the studies she examined, making cross-comparisons difficult. However, she concludes that “most studies find little differences between the print and screen reading for comprehension” (p 169). But, she notes, most were not focused on scholarly readings and those that did “concluded that participants gain better understanding of the content when reading from paper” (p 169).

Overall, this article offers a synthesis of recent scholarly literature (2010-2016) located in information management databases. While the scope of the study does not specify the exact search parameters used nor if search parameters were used to eliminate any studies from consideration, it does offer a brief overall glance at some of the literature that exists on this subject from an information management perspective. If the author had opened up this research to examine databases within learning, education and educational technology, additional research may have been found. However despite this limited search parameter, the information within this article, when synthesized together, highlights several aspects to screen reading which should be considered within educational technology.

In her article, Walsh (2016) notes that when considering reading and comprehension, neuroscience research suggests that deep reading is necessary for “furthering comprehension, deductive reasoning, critical thought and insight” (p 162) but that there is variation in the areas of the brain which are stimulated by print reading and versus those stimulated by screen reading. This variation may indicate that there may be some impingement upon the screen reader’s “ability to reflect, absorb and recall information as effectively as in formation in the paper form” (p 162) and may encourage more shallow or skim reading. While not specifically addressed by Walsh but when considered further, this information suggests that educators which rely on-screen based reading to help students gain material knowledge for their course may need to develop activities which work to promote deeper reading in students. This is not something students learn early on due to the predominance of paper assigned materials in early education. At the same time, this may not be a skill that can be developed with something as simple as giving them a set of questions to answer after having read. Kuiper et. al (2005) offered that, when examining how students searched the Internet, how the teacher structured the task impacted how the student approached the content. In the case of screen reading, well-structured tasks (to borrow from Kuiper et. al) may support only a seek-and-find strategy and not necessarily support the ability of the student to creatively and critically come to comprehend and synthesize the materials.

Walsh’s review also offers information which shows that the content’s format, intention and its length can impact how much the student may learn from screen reading. Walsh (2016) notes that even though students read off of screens for entertainment, when it comes to academic documents, students prefer to print off a document rather than reading it on the screen. This preference is related to not only the “high level of concentration and text comprehension” necessary but that academic reading also required the reader to interact with the document through annotating, highlighting and bookmarking passages for reference (p 163).  Walsh’s research suggests that students do not perceive themselves as being able to accomplish as much with screen reading of academic documents as print reading.  This perception is critical since even though many students within the studies indicated interest in screen reading, they doubted their own ability to be competent with it. This perception of competence could potentially undermine student interest in engaging with the reading fully. Thus, while Walsh does not specify this within the article, it does recommend that an educator who utilizes screen based academic reading as part of their course may need to offer more guidance to the readers with regards to both how they may engage with the reading (through digital annotation, tagging and bookmarking) and more encouragement for students to build self-confidence in their abilities.  In addition, Walsh (2016) highlights research showing there is very little difference in outcomes of performance between screen readers and print readers for shorter content but that for longer, more complex materials, learning and information retrieval can be impacted when reading from a screen. Furthermore text which were less data and fact based, which were less visual, and required more cognitive reasoning were easier to read in paper format than on-screen. These two points would suggest that a simple transformation of printed text to a digital format for screen reading – a common practice among educators and journals alike, may not be sufficient for materials to be comprehended as easily as the text version. Rather that utilizing technology to optimize the reading experience through visuals, textual divisions, and structured hypertext may benefit the comprehension of more complex longer materials.

Finally Walsh presents research which outlines how the platform characteristics with regards to design, user interaction and navigation can impact comprehension. The research Walsh presents suggest that platform structures not only create technical frustrations but may limit the level of engagement the student can have with the reading or increase the level of distractions they can experience. Not all readings are equally optimized for learning for all students in all platforms. Therefore this could recommend to the educator that careful consideration of platform tools (navigate, annotate, explore), overall student familiarity with a platform and its usability, and the ability of the educator and student to turn off and on hypertext/pop-ups should be considered when selecting for digital materials.

These points, taken together, suggest that educators need to have a more thoughtful, approach to the incorporation of digital reading materials in their courses and that students may be better served by educators approaching onscreen reading with more intentional design than is currently in use.

Additional References

Kuiper, E., Volman, M., & Terwel, J. (2005). The Web as an information resource in K–12 education: Strategies for supporting students in searching and processing information. Review of Educational Research, 75, 285–328


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