I can distinctly remember studying for finals in college and pouring over academic articles I’d read and carefully annotated. For certain material that I knew well, I could recall the specific place on the page where I’d read a fact or quotation–upper right corner, middle of the page, just after a chapter heading, etc. These articles were photocopies or pdf printouts. That is, they were paper pages.
Turns out that the fixed layout of printed pages helps you absorb and learn information better. The context and landmarks on a printed page–headings, images, position on a spread–are one factor in cementing information in your mind. In contrast, the endless flow of text in most ebooks leaves readers in sea of words that is more difficult to fix in memory. Maia Szalavitz of TIME magazine talked to the researchers who have looked into the issue and reported back:
“What we found was that people on paper started to ‘know’ the material more quickly over the passage of time,” says [Kate] Garland [of the University of Leicester]. “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.” 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.
Obviously, I’m concerned about my own ability to retain what I read as more of what I read is in ebook format. But this further underscores my skepticism about the difficulty of teaching middle schoolers literacy skills like annotation in a digital context. It’s entirely possible that cross-platform annotation tools will solve this problem for ebooks in the near future. But for the moment, I’m going to remember what I read better–and the research suggests the same for my students–if I can mark up a paper version.
Image: Spread from Ellen Lupton’s “Thinking With Type”–sample pages available at elupton.com Bet you can remember where the iPhone was on the spread.