The results are in and old-timers like me have won! It turns out that those of us who believe reading real books is inherently better than reading e-books are right. This is the finding of a recent study conducted by Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University. According to this study, “the tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocketbook does.” If this column sounds like an old rooster crowing I told you so, bear with me. Mangen’s study revealed some information that is useful and even a little scary.
As part of Mangen’s research one group was asked to read an e-book containing a short mystery while another group read the same mystery in paperback. Those who read the paperback were significantly better at remembering what took place in the story and in what order than those who read the e-book. According to Mangen, the tactile experience of flipping through the pages of a real book allows readers to gage their progress and keep events in the story in order, an experience e-books cannot sufficiently replicate. As a result, e-books take away the reader’s sense of control and limit their sensory experience. Real books, on the other hand, help readers form the necessary mental images of the concepts presented, thereby aiding comprehension, recognition, and recall.
The finding in Mangen’s study that suggests real books promote better comprehension, recognition, and recall really grabbed my attention. I still teach college courses from time to time, but things are much different now than they were when I started way back in 1975. When I started teaching, students had real books, took notes in pencil or pen, and did research in the library. Now my students have Kindles, Nooks, I-Pads, and laptops. Those who read at all read e-books and take notes on their laptops. Concerning research, for today’s college student that amounts to nothing more than Googling. What is surprising in all of this is that with all of the learning aids my students now have and with instant access to tons of information, they don’t seem to learn very well. Their comprehension of reading assignments is minimal, their recognition of basic concepts skimpy at best, and their recall of information non-existent.
My take on the decline in learning skills observed in college students, even before reading the Mangen study, was that e-books, computers, social media, and the Internet had done the same thing to students’ reading ability that calculators had done to their Mathematical ability. Any time technology does brain work for people, they either lose the ability to do it for themselves or never develop the ability in the first place. You see this phenomenon all the time these days when cashiers cannot ring up your purchases without the aid of a bar code scanner or make change unless the cash register does the calculations for them.
Today’s students have almost unlimited access to the broadest possible range of information. They can download 1,500 or more e-books on their hand-held devices, research any subject with the press of a button, and access the thoughts and opinions of thousands of people in seconds via social media. But with all of these supposed advantages they are unable to comprehend, recognize, or recall even the most basic of information. In other words, technology appears to have created a situation in which students have unlimited access to information but no clue what it means or how to use it, much less remember it. This is why Americans have become so susceptible to the lies and nefarious agendas of oily politicians. Unable to think for themselves, they tend to believe anything they hear.
Information, no matter how vast or instantly available, is of little use to someone who cannot remember, comprehend, or apply it. It appears that the ability of young people to remember information has been replaced by a total dependence on Google and contact lists in their hand-held devices. Do you remember when people memorized important telephone numbers? I can still remember my parent’s first phone number from when I was a child (WO 89403, and it was a party line). If that number looks a little funny or you don’t know what a party line is, you are showing your age (or rather your youth). This dependence on technology makes college students the intellectual equivalent of the cashier who cannot make change without the help of a digital cash register.
In the past year or so, every time I teach a college class some student will ask in all seriousness if he or she can use Google when taking a test. I recently gave a test multiple-choice test covering three chapters. The week prior to the test I told the class that all of the questions would come from the summaries of the chapters in question. All they had to do was study those summaries and an easy “A” would be theirs for the making. The average score on this test turned out to be 72, the lowest score in the “C” range. Either these students cannot read, cannot comprehend what they read, or simply cannot recognize what they read when they see it again (as on a test). In my school days we would have simply memorized the summaries for the three chapters in question, but public schools long ago stopped using memorization as a learning technique and Google, e-books, and contact lists have done the rest. As a result of the so-called benefits of technology, today’s college students are like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present. They cannot remember from moment to moment anything they are told and even less of what they read.
Because of e-books, e-mail, Twitter, and other reading-related technologies, Americans are becoming scanners rather than readers. The Mangen study suggests that readers of books read horizontally from left to right on the page but e-book and e-mail readers use an “F” shaped reading pattern. Rather than reading the text before them, they read the first two lines horizontally and scan the rest of the document vertically. This contention is borne out by research relating to e-mail. Smart users of e-mail have learned to limit their e-mails to just one topic and to keep the text brief and to the point. Users who include more than one topic in an e-mail learn the hard way that recipients tend to read only the first topic before responding. The other topics are often just ignored or are given insufficient attention because they are just scanned instead of being read.
Earlier I used the term “recognize” rather than “recall.” A multiple-choice test does not require a student to recall (actually remember) the information in question. Rather, all the student has to do is recognize it when seeing the information in a list of possible answers. Recognition is a lower cognitive activity than recalling. For example, a fill-in-the-blanks test is a recall test, which is much more difficult than a recognition test (multiple-choice). This means that e-books and other technological learning aids have reduced our ability not just to recall information we have read but to even recognize it when we see it again.
The instant and convenient access to information that has resulted from technology is a good thing, but the corresponding loss of comprehension, recognition, and recall is not. It does little good to have information if we lack the cognitive skills to organize, analyze, and use it; not to mention remember it. E-books and other related technologies should be multipliers of learning, not inhibitors. The value of electronic technologies is lost if these technologies result in a corresponding loss of cognitive skills in people. We used to say that computers are just dumb machines and that people are smart. I am not sure this statement is still true. From what I am seeing, even a computer that is turned off is smarter than some people these days.
It now appears that with e-books, e-mail, texting, Twitter, and other reading-related technologies we have gained convenience, instant access, and connectedness at the cost of depth, thought, comprehension, recognition, and recall. As a result we are becoming people who read books (e-books) but cannot remember which ones we read or comprehend what they meant. We are connected to everyone and blessed with unlimited information, but these benefits are doing little to advance knowledge or understanding because to gain convenience and access we have sacrificed comprehension, analysis, and memory. It’s a shame.