Are Paperless Textbooks the Future?

students studying

Textbooks tend to be expensive, mostly because their content is very specialized and the number of potential buyers (students) is much smaller than the average mass-market bestseller.

When faced with the prospect of shelling out big bucks for textbooks, having the option of saving money by purchasing ebooks versions of those textbooks (instead of the printed variety) is understandably appealing.

In an age filled with information, you’d think that anything technology can do to make managing all that information cheaper and more convenient would be a good thing but, thanks to the unique features of the human brain, that’s not always the case.

There is some evidence that what is read using a device, be it a computer, tablet or eReader, doesn’t work its way into our brains as quickly or to quite the same extent as when we read the same material in a printed book.

“Psychologists distinguish between remembering something—which is to recall a piece of information along with contextual details, such as where, when and how one learned it—and knowing something, which is feeling that something is true without remembering how one learned the information. Generally, remembering is a weaker form of memory that is likely to fade unless it is converted into more stable, long-term memory that is “known” from then on.”1

The advantage of knowing something is that you’re to be able to access that information more easily and quickly, which can be a learning advantage.

Researchers have found that:

  • When students were quizzed on material read from a computer monitor vs. a printed booklet, both groups performed similarly but Device-Readers (students reading material on a computer, eReader or tablet) relied more on memory to get the answers right where as Paper-Readers (students who read information printed on paper) tended to “know” the answers.2
  • Further research in 2011 found that Paper-Readers “understood topics more quickly, had more accessible retention (it just “came to them” when asked), and worked through reading material more quickly.”3
  • Device-Readers had more difficulty than Paper-Readers with “plot reconstruction”, which has to do with flow of events in a story. 4
  • In a study of 10th graders, Paper-Readers showed better reading comprehension. 4

We tend to understand and remember more easily when we use more than one sense while engaged a learning activity.  The learning differences we see between reading from a device and reading a printed book seem to stem from the “package” and the way in which the information is presented.5

Reading a printed book engages several senses.  Every time we pick up a book, we touch and see both the front and back cover.  A book has weight, its cover may be embossed with texture and the paper inside has its own distinct smell.  Different types of paper, print styles and font further add to the multi-sensory experience of reading a printed book.  As you hold a book while reading it, you have a sense of where you are in the book based on the thickness of pages on the left compared to the right.  Chapters in a printed book tend to start on the right hand side and end on the left.  Devices don’t engage our senses and give us a sense of “location” in the book to the same degree.

Maryann Wolf’s book “Proust and the Squid” explains how we experience written language and reading.  Our brains see words and letters on a page as a collection physical objects because we’re not born pre-programmed to read.   “The human brain improvises a brand-new circuit for reading by weaving together (connections between) various regions of (the brain) devoted to other abilities, such as spoken language, (movement) and vision.”6  As a result, our brains may experience words on a page or in a book much like a roadmap with landmarks and sequences in which our memory can make footholds that help us remember not just individual bits but also how those bits fit together to make up the “whole” of the content experience. 7  When we can see this “big picture” we’re more likely to learn and “know” the information within it.

So it’s not surprising that anything that adds to the richness of the touch, feel, see and smell experience of reading makes creating and retaining a “content map” easier.  And that’s reflected in the research.  People who read text using devices have to put more effort into finding and remembering certain nuggets of information within the text compared to those who read the same text printed in a book.

Our devices, sleep and learning

Unfortunately, there’s more bad news for students hoping to lighten their backpacks and save money by switching from paper-based textbooks to e-textbooks.  Recent research8 has found that reading a backlit device during the hours before bedtime (when many students do their school reading) makes getting a good night’s sleep more difficult which, in turn, can make it more difficult to learn.

Reading a backlit device before bed has been found to reduce the body’s production of melatonin (known as the sleep hormone) by 55%.  As a result, these Device-Readers took an average of 10 minutes longer to fall asleep and they had less REM sleep (deep dream sleep) during the night.  The next morning it took Device-Readers hours longer to feel alert and when bedtime rolled around that night, their body clock was off by more than 90 minutes, keeping them awake even later than the night before (and that was without doing any more device reading before bed).

It’s not hard to see how a few nights spent reading using a device shortly before bedtime could really mess up your body clock but what effect could that have on your ability to learning?

According to Dr. Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, sleeping before learning helps prepare your brain to make memories.  And, sleep after learning “is essential to help save and cement that new information into the architecture of the brain, meaning that you’re less likely to forget it.” If you haven’t slept, your ability to learn new things could drop by up to 40%.9

Dr. Michael Craig Miller reviewed research10 on how sleep affects learning and found:

  • Students who slept between sessions solving math problems solved those problems slightly faster and were “more likely to find a hidden solution to the puzzle that required insight, rather than a performance boost.”
  • “The dreams of REM sleep tend to have connections or associations made by leaps rather than a straight, logical progression. REM sleep may advance the original thinking required for insight.”

So the evidence seems to indicate that a textbook printed on paper is a better learning tool than a device that presents that same text on a screen.   So the “old school” printed textbook probably isn’t and shouldn’t go away anytime soon.

If text printed on paper is the superior technology for certain kinds of knowledge or learning, perhaps the go-forward question to asked is, “What is it that is unique about how devices and computer technology deliver information and experiences that supports how humans learn and how can that technology be used in conjunction with printed text?”

Can Technology Help Us Learn? shares both research and some insights that may be helpful in answering that question.

In the meantime, students can probably expect to continue paying for printed textbooks if they wish to optimize the learning they gain from reading text.  Luckily, college and university bookstores try to provide options for reducing the cost of textbooks by offering book rental services and used books for sale, as well as used book buy-back programs.  Students can also resell their used textbooks directly through such outlets as social media sites.   Working with professors to ensure consistently in the textbooks they use in their courses can help this type of recycling to continue helping students manage this part of cost of their post-secondary education.

1   The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens, Ferris Jabr, Scientific American, April 11, 2013,

2   Kate Garland and colleagues (2003), noted in The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens, Ferris Jabr, Scientific American, April 11, 2013,

3    Kate Garland and colleagues (2011), noted in Speed and Retention – Are e-Readers Slower and More Forgetful?, Kent Anderson, Scholarly Kitchen, March 21, 2012,

4   Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper, study finds, Alison Flood, 19Aug2014,

5   Speed and Retention – Are e-Readers Slower and More Forgetful? Kent Anderson, Scholarly Kitchen, March 21, 2012,

6   Based on content from Maryann Wolf’s book “Proust and the Squid” noted in The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens, Ferris Jabr, Scientific American, April 11, 2013,

7   The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens, Ferris Jabr, Scientific American, April 11, 2013,

8   Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness, Anne-Marie Changa, Daniel Aeschbacha, Jeanne F. Duffy and Charles A. Czeislera, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 27, 2015, vol. 112, no. 4, 1232-1237,

9   Sleep on it: How Snoozing Strengthens Memories, NIH News in Health, April 2013

10  How Sleep Affects Learning and Memory, Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Seniro Editor of Mental Health Publishing at Harvard Health Publications.

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