Digital reading and its impact on memory and learning

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Researchers have found that digital devices affect our ability to remember and learn, that we retain more information when we read printed materials. But is it too early in the 'digital age' to draw any conclusions?

Is it easier to remember information we read on a printed page rather than from a screen?

It’s often been said that memory is like a muscle - exercise it and it gets bigger and stronger - the more we remember the more we are able to remember.

Many of the features on the digital devices we carry today mean that we no longer need to remember things in the way previous generations did. 

Which presumably means our ability to remember is weaker too.

Is your phone smarter than you?

A study published  by the Telegraph and the New York Times in 2010 found that 70% of people don’t remember their best friend’s phone number, 50% don’t know their parent’s phone number and 90% couldn't remember one single business phone number.

There was a time when phones had big dials on them that turned very slowly indeed. If you forgot a single digit you could spend an entire day dialing one person's telephone number, so you made sure you remembered all the important phone numbers in your life.

Then came phones with handy little key buttons, which were faster and easier to use but still required that you know the number you were dialing.

When phones went digital suddenly all numbers were stored and accessible with a single click or tap and out went the necessity to ever remember short sequences of numbers again.

The world in your pocket

The ever growing features of handheld digital devices has had an impact well beyond remembering your best friend’s number - or your own, come to that.

How many times have you been out with friends and found yourself unable to remember the name of an actor in a movie or a song title? The name of the restaurant you’re sitting in? How to calculate the square root of a negative number?

No problem, you simply pull out your phone, search and in a few seconds the answer is in the palm of your hands.

The quid pro quo for the quick and convenient ways we can access facts about anything seems to be the flood of information that comes into our lives via various social media platforms. Your stupefied memory confronted by a whole world of trivial and vital news and information every minute of every day.

Forget digital and remember print

Now there is another aspect of our digital lives that may be damaging our ability to absorb and retain information. Scientists are discovering and analysing differences in how the brain interprets printed text and digital text.

Researchers in the psychology department at the University of Leicester asked one half of a sample group to read a number of economic text books on e-readers and the other half of the group to read print versions of the same texts.

The student sample groups were then asked the same questions about the texts they had read.

The research team found that digital readers had to read the same information several times to gain the same level of knowledge as print readers.

Dr Kate Garland, who led the research, explained that remembering is a form of knowing “...something so well it just comes to you," by first deciphering the context and then recalling the answer.

"What we found was that people on paper started to 'know' the material more quickly over the passage of time," says Garland. "It took longer and 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."

Neuroscientist Mark Changizi, believes the physical space of print may also help with memory. Factors like remembering whether you read something at the top or the bottom of a page - or whether it was on the right or left hand side of a two-page spread or near a graphic - can help cement information in the mind.

The age of forgetting

It’s seems unlikely that the consummation of information via digital devices is going to do anything other than increase. So does this mean we’re going to lose our ability to remember?

Probably not. Alan Liu, chair and professor of English at UC Santa Barbara, says gleaning information from text isn't just biological or neurological, but social as well:

"Initially, any new information medium seems to degrade reading because it disturbs the balance between focal and peripheral attention... it takes time and adaptation before a balance can be restored, not just in the 'mentality' of the reader, as historians of the book like to say, but in the social systems that complete the reading environment."

Just as the invention of the Guttenberg Press made the printed word available to the public it also led the end of storytellers reciting tales from memory and changed the way information was delivered and received forever.

The digital age we live in is likely to have a huge effect on the ways we process and manage information, personally and socially.

How we learn things has most certainly changed, but the digital information age we live in means we all have access to a much wider range of materials than ever before. The challenge for students and teachers is how we utilise this to ensure learning experiences are still rigorous but also better and broader.

Where it takes us, will the effect on general mental cognition be positive or negative, is open to speculation. But one thing is for sure, we are living in an exciting and new information epoch. Now where did I leave my phone...

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