Reading on electronic devices may interfere with science reading comprehension

A little kid dressed in an elegant way is sitted on the top of a pile of books, reading something on a tablet

People who often read on electronic devices may have a difficult time understanding scientific concepts, according to a team of researchers. They suggest that this finding, among others in the study, could also offer insights on how reading a scientific text differs from casual reading.

In a study, a group of adult readers who frequently used electronic devices were significantly less successful on a reading comprehension test after reading several scientific articles compared to those who used those devices less frequently, said Ping Li, professor of psychology and associate director of the Institute for CyberScience, Penn State.

“The more time the participants reported on using e-devices per day — for instance, reading texts on their iPhone, watching TV, playing internet games, texting, or reading an eBook — the less well they did when they tried to understand scientific texts,” said Li. “There are a lot of positive uses for electronic devices and I’m an advocate of digital learning, but when it comes to understanding of science concepts through reading, our take is that it’s not helpful.”

Li said the way people read on electronic devices may encourage them to pick up only bits and pieces of information from the material, while the comprehension of scientific information requires a more holistic approach to reading where the reader incorporates the information in a relational and structured way.

“This is sort of speculation, because, so far, this is only a correlation — When you are writing a text on a smartphone, for example, you use very short sentences and you abbreviate a lot, so it’s fragmented,” said Li. “When you’re reading such a text, you’re getting bits of information here and there and not always trying to connect the material. And I think that might be the main difference, when you’re reading expository scientific texts you need to be connecting and integrating the information.”

Reading science articles is different from reading narratives, as well, according to the researchers, who released their findings in the journal Reading and Writing.

“In a lot of ways, reading a science text is different from reading a story,” said Li. “In a story, let’s say you’re reading ‘Harry Potter,’ you have characters, there’s a plot, there’s an evolving story line. And that’s why we’re interested in this. You can easily get engrossed in a narrative, but in reading scientific texts, you are trying to understand new or unfamiliar concepts and how they are related — and that’s a very different process.”

The research could help both students who need to read science articles, as well as scientists who want to make their information more accessible and readable, said Li, who worked with Jake Follmer, a former doctoral student in educational psychology; Shin-Yi Fang, postdoctoral scholar in psychology; Roy B. Clariana, professor of education; and Bonnie J. F. Meyer, professor of educational psychology, all of Penn State.

In future research, the researchers will use brain imaging tools to determine what areas of the brain are engaged while reading science texts and whether disengagement of these areas means a failure to understand, according to Li.

The researchers recruited 403 participants through Amazon Mechanical Turk to read eight different scientific articles, which were similar to articles found in a science text book that covered topics such as electrical circuits, permutation, GPS, Mars and supertankers. The participants read through the articles, which were about 300 words each, or 30 sentences in length, sentence by sentence, at their own pace.

In another study, 107 participants were recruited to read the whole paragraph at once.

After reading each article, they were asked to answer 10 multiple choice questions about the article. Participants were also asked to sort key terms from the article into groups.

“The sorting tasks are designed to elicit their knowledge structure developed after readers finished reading science texts,” said Li. “And this method allows us to see if different people may get different mental relations of the science concepts or other concepts.”

The National Science Foundation supported this work.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting observations (including those from the reviewers, too) and studies. I’d like to share a bit about writing, which is an output process rather than input like reading.

    I noted a big difference in processing sentences (thus, the thoughts deep down) in writing on paper and that on an electric device. On a paper, the written text can’t be easily corrected, so a writer has to compose the entire paragraph — or very often, entire article — or at least the outline of them, in the brain before he/she starts to write it down. On the electronic devices, however, a writer can write down a piece of sentence immediately after the thought of that pops up in the brain. That is, a writer can think and write, write and think in any free style or order. no longer needs to have a full picture of an article in mind before text is written — there’s no such need ‘cos it can always be fixed easily after written. Thus, in the long run, people (well mostly I am talking about myself) start to lose the capacity of forming a complete picture as well as an organized thought in the mind.

    This reminds me of my learning experience with Chinese calligraphy (in which you cannot “fix” it after you write it down). After years of practice, I found that the process of writing those characters is just a tool to copy what I have in mind onto a paper. Before I even start writing, the characteristics, the form and structure of a character, the entire picture of it, is already formed in my mind. Writing is simply a process of copying and pasting that picture. Now imagine if people found a new way to easily fix it after writing. I’ll start losing the capacity of forming the character in my mind, ‘cos I can always fix it and there’s’ no longer such a need.

    It seems that electronic devices makes this output(writing) process share the same characteristics of fragmentation like that in the input (reading).

  2. I agree. It seems the writer of this synopsis confuses content and delivery mechanism. Prior to my retirement three years ago, I was responsible for several scientific research groups at a federal facility. For the past 10-15 years, most, if not all, of the post docs I hired preferred to read scientific journal articles electronically (PC, tablet, or even phone); unlike the old guys (like me) who really like to have a paper copy.

  3. As a graduate student in education, I’m writing a research paper on reading comprehension in connection with screen reading. Much of the peer reviewed research finds that when the text is difficult and information density is high, the reading comprehension levels of students were found to be higher towards the text to be read in the electronic environment. There is an especially strong correlation when the informative texts are long and difficult in the sense that they include a density of general information.
    I’m wondering if the difference has to do with growing up with digital text.

  4. For years I read mostly non-fiction (social sciences: books for lay people about topics in psychology, sociology, self-help, history, education, religion). When I went back to reading fiction, I was startled to experience it as emotionally addictive. I couldn’t put down a book during the day until it was finished. I felt dazed and distracted; I couldn’t stop thinking about the story and characters. I then remembered experiencing reading in that way as a child. In contrast, reading non-fiction makes me feel alert and connected. I fill the margins with annotations, adding to or objecting to the author’s assertions, noting the unstated sources of the facts or opinions if I know them, identifying hidden messages and assumptions. It is an experience of a dialogue with the text. (As I have read more, and higher-quality, fiction, I also have a dialogue experience as I notice how the story is told -rhetorical devices, structure, language- or if I recognize the literary influences of the author.) In short, yes, the brain does process different kinds of texts differently.

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