Students who read essays on a computer screen found the text harder to understand, less interesting and less persuasive than students who read the same essay on paper, a new study has found.
Researchers had 131 undergraduate students read two articles that had appeared in Time magazine - some read from the magazine, some read the exact same text after it had been scanned into a computer.
"We were surprised that students found paper texts easier to understand and somewhat more convincing," said P. Karen Murphy, co-author of the study and assistant professor of educational psychology at Ohio State University. "It may be that students need to learn different processing abilities when they are attempting to read computerized text."
Murphy said the results of this preliminary study cast doubt on the assumption that computerized texts are essentially more interesting and, thus, more likely to enhance learning.
"Given that there is such an emphasis on using computers in the classroom, this study gives educators reason to pause and examine the supposed benefits associated with computer use in classrooms," she said. "This study provides a first step toward understanding how computers might influence the learning process."
Murphy conducted the study with Ohio State graduate students Joyce Long, Theresa Holleran and Elizabeth Esterly. They presented their results Aug. 5 in Washington at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
The study involved 64 men and 67 women, all undergraduates at Ohio State. The students read two essays that had appeared in Time, one involving doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients and the other about school integration.
Before they read the essays, the students completed questionnaires analyzing their knowledge and beliefs about the subjects in the texts.
After the readings, the students completed questionnaires that probed their understanding of the essays and also asked them about how persuasive and interesting they thought the essays were.
One-third of the students read the print essays and responded to the questionnaires on paper. One-third read the essays on a computer and then responded to the questionnaire on paper. The final third of participants read the essays on the computer screens and responded to the questionnaire online.
The results showed that students in all three groups increased their knowledge after reading the texts, and the beliefs of students in each group became more closely aligned with the authors.
However, there were important differences, such as the fact that students who read the essays on the computer screen found the texts more difficult to understand. This was true regardless of how much computer experience the students reported.
"In some ways, this is surprising because the computerized essays were the exact same text, presenting the exact same information," Murphy said. The computerized texts even included the small picture that appeared in the print edition.
"There is no reason they should be harder to understand. But we think readers develop strategies about how to remember and comprehend printed texts, but these students were unable to transfer those strategies to computerized texts."
The students found the computerized texts less interesting than printed text, which should be expected if they didn't understand the computerized versions as well, she said.
Students who read the essays online also rated the authors as less credible and the arguments as less persuasive. "Again, it may be that if these students did not understand the message, they would not judge the author to be as credible and might not find the arguments as persuasive."
There were no significant differences between the students who read the texts online and responded to the questionnaires on paper, and those who read the online texts and also responded to the questions online.
Murphy said that if the college students in this study had difficulty understanding computerized text, such text may present additional hurdles for less competent readers.
"We shouldn't make it more difficult for children to learn, which is why we need to be careful about how we use computers in the classroom," she said.
"A lot of questions have to be answered before we continue further into making computers part of the curriculum."
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