Print, audio or video: which media to choose for better learning?


During the pandemic, many university professors abandoned traditional textbooks in favor of digital documents or multimedia devices.

As a linguistics teacher , I compared electronic communications and printed texts from the point of view of learning. Is the level of understanding of information the same depending on whether it is read on paper or on a screen? And is listening or watching content as effective as reading texts to broach a subject?

The answer to these two questions is generally “no” , which can be explained by a whole series of factors including less concentration, a state of mind inclined to entertainment and the tendency to do several things at the same time when you are. on the Web.

Screen versus paper

For texts of at least a few hundred words, reading is more effective on paper than on screen, in the majority of cases. A finding that is based on a wealth of research .

The benefits of print are especially evident when moving from simple tasks – like identifying the main idea of ​​a text – to tasks that require mental abstraction – like drawing conclusions. Reading on paper also increases the likelihood of remembering details – like the color of a character’s hair – and of remembering at what point in history a certain event occurred.

Numerous studies show that students often think that they will score better on a comprehension test if they read the text digitally. However, it turns out that their success is greater when they have read a printed version.

Education specialists should take into account that the method used for standardized tests influences the results. For example, studies of Norwegian high school and American college students show even better results when the tests are administered on paper. In the American study, the effects of numerical tests were more pronounced among students with poor reading scores, students learning English, and students enrolled in specialized devices.

With my colleagues , we approached the issue from another angle . Rather than having students read a text and then submit them a test, we asked them how they perceived their learning overall depending on whether they used printed or digital reading materials. High school and college students overwhelmingly found that reading on paper was more conducive to concentration, learning and memorization than digital reading.

The discrepancies between the two categories of results are partly related to the physical properties of the paper. With this medium, we literally have the text in our hands and a visual geography of very distinct pages emerges. Most people associate the memory of what they read with where it was in the book or on the page.

But the state of mind in which one finds oneself, and the “superficiality hypothesis” as the researchers call it , are equally important.

Podcasts and Videos

With the rise of the flipped classroom – where students listen to or view course content before coming to class – and the increase in the number of audio and video podcasts available online, many assignments including readings have been replaced by listening or viewing document. A phenomenon that accelerated during the pandemic with distance education.

In a 2019 survey of Norwegian and American professors, my colleague from Stavanger University Anne Mangen and I found that 32% of American teachers replaced texts with video documents and 15% did the same with video documents. audio documents. The numbers were a bit lower in Norway. But in both countries, 40% of participants who had changed their requirements in the past five to ten years said they gave fewer required readings.

One of the main reasons for switching to audio and video is that students refuse to take these readings. Although the problem is far from new  ; a 2015 study of 18,000 students showed that only 21% of them actually took the required readings.

Audio and video can sound more appealing than text, so professors are increasingly using these media, such as recommending listening to a TED talk rather than reading an article by the same author.

Contexts and objectives

Psychologists have shown that when adults read news articles or fictional texts , they remember it better than if they had access to the same content via audio.

Similar results were obtained in surveys of students. Research also confirms that they have a more wandering mind when consulting audio content than reading.

With younger students, the finding is equivalent, with one nuance. A study in Cyprus showed that the relationship between listening and reading skills reversed as children improved in reading. If, in primary school, the pupils understood better what they had listened to, it was the opposite in college.

Research on learning from video echoes what we observe with audio. For example, Spanish researchers have established that students at the end of primary or beginning of middle school retained the information they read much better than those who had watched videos. The hypothesis formulated by the authors is that the students follow the videos in a more superficial way because they associate this medium with entertainment and not with school.

Research as a whole has shown that digital media are associated with characteristics and practices that can limit learning. This includes the temptation to multitask, the lack of a fixed physical point of reference, less use of annotations, and less frequency of reviewing what has been read, seen or heard.

Digital texts, podcasts and videos all have an educational role to play, especially when they provide access to resources that are not accessible in print. However, to maximize learning with the necessary focus and reflection, educators and parents should not pretend all media are equal – even if they ultimately contain the same information.

Author Bio: Naomi S. Baron is Professor of Linguistics Emerita at the American University