eBooks, and how well do we remember what we read?

Do we remember what we read better from paper books, or ebooks? Other than our own personal inclinations, the early — and fairly preliminary — research at University of Leicester gives paper books the edge. From Time (“Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read?”) —

“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.”

I’d say that I read about half of my books in print and ink form, and half in ebook form; personally, I haven’t noticed much of a difference between my ability to recall between paper or screen. Although, for ease of use, I would still prefer paper books for studying, etc.

Also, I don’t know if I fully grasped the distinction being made here between ‘knowing’ and ‘remembering’:

“Second, the book readers seemed to digest the material more fully. Garland explains that when you recall something, you either “know” it and it just “comes to you” — without necessarily consciously recalling the context in which you learned it — or you “remember” it by cuing yourself about that context and then arriving at the answer. “Knowing” is better because you can recall the important facts faster and seemingly effortlessly.”

Neuroscience on the topic does indicate that spatial context is an important cue for our memories. Therefore, if we’re talking about textbooks which tend to have more visual landmarks (diagrams, tables, etc.) there is an argument to be made:

“Context and landmarks may actually be important to going from “remembering” to “knowing.” The more associations a particular memory can trigger, the more easily it tends to be recalled. Consequently, seemingly irrelevant factors like remembering whether you read something at the top or the bottom of page — or whether it was on the right or left hand side of a two-page spread or near a graphic — can help cement material in mind.

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.

Even for non-textbooks, I tend to believe that page numbers, and chapter breaks are good markers of memory for us. Granted, reading on screens is a fairly new development — and there’s an interesting quote from Jakob Nielson on something I had not thought about: screen size. “The bigger the screen, the more people can remember and the smaller, the less they can remember.”

I wonder about what will come of our ability to learn new reading strategies on digital compared to paper reading. When, and how that happens, remains to be seen.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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