Study: Those who use an e-reader are worse at remembering a plot

A new study found that those who read a story on an e-reader versus a paper version were worse at putting the story's events in the right timeline.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
A commuter uses his e-reader in Cambridge, Mass.

Does someone who read a novel on paper remember more about the story than a person who used an e-reader to peruse the same text?

Yes, according to a new study. The Guardian reports that lead researcher Anne Mangen of Stavanger University in Norway said at a recent conference in Italy that she and those she worked with presented 50 people with a short story by writer Elizabeth George. Of those 50 readers, 25 received a paper copy and 25 used a Kindle e-reader and then all were then asked questions about the story’s setting, characters, and other details. 

“The Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, i.e. when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order,” Mangen said, according to the Guardian. 

Why would Kindle readers be worse at putting steps of the story in order? Mangen suggested that it’s the process of reading a physical book. “When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right," she said. "You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual…. Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader's sense of unfolding and progress of the text." 

Mangen says this isn’t the first time she’s seen this happen – last year, she and other researchers had some Norwegian high school students read paper texts and others read the section via a PDF file. “Students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally,” she said. 

Not all researchers agree with Mangen, however, and questions about retention and comprehension among e-book readers remain a source of ongoing debate. Last year an article in Scientific American suggested that although initially reading on screens may diminish readers' capacity to understand what they read, that could change over time as readers become more accustomed to reading on screen.

How’s your recall when you read something via your e-reader? Do you think you’d score better on putting a plot in order?

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