Another study points to advantages of printed textbooks

Even as administrators and legislators push schools to dump printed books in favor of electronic ones, evidence mounts that paper books have important advantages as tools for learning. Last month, I reported on a study out of the University of Washington which showed that students find printed books more flexible than e-books in supporting a wide range of reading and learning styles. Now comes a major study from the University of California system showing that students continue to prefer printed books to e-books and that many undergraduates complain that they have trouble “learning, retaining, and concentrating” when reading from screens.

The University of California Libraries began a large e-textbook pilot program in 2008. In late 2010, more than 2,500 students and faculty members were surveyed to assess the results of the program. Overall, 58% of the respondents said they used e-books for their academic work, with the percentage varying from 55% for undergraduates to 57% for faculty to 67% for graduate students. The respondents who used e-books were then asked whether they preferred e-books or printed books for their studies. Overall, 44% said they preferred printed books and 35% said they preferred e-books, with the remainder expressing no preference. The preference for print was strongest among undergraduates, 53% of whom preferred printed books, with only 27% preferring e-books. Graduate students preferred printed books by 45% to 35%, and faculty preferred printed books by 43% to 33%.

The most illuminating part of the survey came when respondents were asked to explain their preferences. The answers suggest that while students prefer e-books when they need to search through a book quickly to find a particular fact or passage, they prefer printed books for deep, attentive reading. “E-books divide my attention,” said one undergraduate. “Paper … keeps me focused and away from distractions that may arise from computer usage,” said another. “I have some difficulty paying careful attention to long passages on my computer,” said another. “Reading on the computer makes it harder for me to understand the information,” said another. Commented a graduate student: “I am a better reader when I have the print copy in front of me.”

Another graduate student, in the social sciences, explained the different strengths of printed books and e-books:

I answered that I prefer print books, generally. However, the better answer would be that print books are better in some situations, while e-books are better in others. Each have their role – e-books are great for assessing the book, relatively quick searches, like encyclopedias or fact checking, checking bibliography for citations, and reading selected chapters or the introduction. If I want to read the entire book, I prefer print. If I want to interact extensively with the text, I would buy the book to mark up with my annotations; if I want to read for background (not as intensively) I will check out a print book from the library if possible. All options have their place. I am in humanities/social sciences, so print is still very much a part of my research life at this point.

Several respondents noted that they often used both electronic and print versions of the same book, “utilizing digital copies of a title for search and discovery tasks, and moving to corresponding paper copies for reading, note taking, text comparison, and deep study.” Two-thirds of undergraduates said it was important to them to have access to print copies of books even when electronic versions were available.

Two years ago, then-California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger dismissed printed textbooks as outdated. “Our kids get their information from the internet, downloaded onto their iPods, and in Twitter feeds to their cell phones,” he said. “Basically, kids are feeling as comfortable with their electronic devices as I was with my pencils and crayons. So why are California’s school students still forced to lug around antiquated, heavy, expensive textbooks?” Many school administrators and government bureaucrats make similar assumptions, with little or no evidence to back them up. Maybe if they went out and looked at how students actually read, study, and learn, they’d see that paper books and electronic books are different tools and that the printed page remains superior to the screen in many cases.

10 thoughts on “Another study points to advantages of printed textbooks

  1. KiltBear

    “I have some difficulty paying careful attention to long passages on my computer,”

    Does it matter if the ebook is on something other than a vertical screen on a computer? I can’t read on a computer screen, but I certainly read more than I ever did on my iOS devices.

    After all, the argument is about form factors, so you need to further divide e-books between their delivery platforms and test those as well.

  2. Nick Carr

    The study covered books read on laptops and on e-readers, but I agree with you that research needs to examine the effects of different kinds of digital devices on reading.

  3. ordaj

    It doesn’t matter what kids prefer, it’s cheaper to produce e-books and more profit in it. So, that’s what they’ll get. Remember, gotta drive the costs out of the system to squeeze more profits out of it.

    Then, they’ll cut back on the number of words. “There are too many notes.”

  4. Dean

    The form factor makes a huge difference. I have a much easier time reading for long periods on an e-Ink display (like the one the Kindle has) than on a LCD display (most laptops and tablets). The e-Ink displays aren’t backlit, which reduces eyestrain and allows you to use them outside.

    I also strongly prefer a dedicated reading device to a laptop or tablet, where distractions abound. It’s far too easy to switch tasks on a multipurpose machine.

    That said, there are some elements of a printed book that can’t be matched. For instance, I find that I get lost less often in a physical book, where I can literally feel how far along I am. Progress bars and chapter headings don’t seem an adequate substitute.

  5. Wayne Riddle


    I hate reading on my computer screen too, but love it on my Nook. My Nook is just a book to me, no problems keeping my attention focused. Just finished reading “Battle Cry of Freedom” on it too.

  6. Brad Murray

    The statistics are useless if they are comparing reading on a computer screen or laptop to a book. They need to consider sometime like a Kindle DX. Computers are screaming to draw your attention away where a Kindle is just for reading (assuming you don’t install any of the IMO useless apps on it). This doesn’t even get into the non-portrait and backlit screen issue. The Kindle and other readers could use better interfaces for markup to position themselves as a better book replacement, but they are on the right path.

  7. Jlmannisto

    This study is right in line with my own experiences. I just graduated from a School of Information, where everyone has multiple connected devices, but I spent over $200 getting paper textbooks after I spent my first year struggling to remember all the readings I had done in PDF form.

  8. Brad Murray

    So in your experience PDFs on a computer compared to regular textbooks are a bad thing which I would agree with. The problem is that ebooks on a dedicated reading device are a third category that is not related to using a computer and they should have their own numbers that are not dragged down but the older version of ebooks.

  9. Jlmannisto

    Brad, maybe so, but if the device allows me to connect to anything else or jump between many things, it’s going to have similar issues to some extent. The benefits may outweigh those issues, but it’s not a given that they will.

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