The Corner

Education

Hold the Rush to Get Rid of Paper Textbooks

Students study at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, September 20, 2018. (Rebecca Cook/REUTERS)

The cost of textbooks for college students has been rising rapidly and now accounts for a hefty percentage of the cost of attending for many students. Publishers have been squeezing all they can out of students by making small annual changes in books, thus stemming the used book market. Professors sometimes get in on the act by requiring students to buy books they’ve written.

Naturally, there is push-back. Instead of costly paper textbooks, why not insist that students have a low-cost digital option?

That may sound reasonable, but apparently there’s a trade-off here: Students may have better comprehension when reading a printed page than when reading a screen. In today’s Martin Center article, Jenna Robinson looks at some research on that point.

The authors of a study, she reports, “found that paper and digital reading is equally effective for narrative-only texts (like novels) but not for informational texts (like textbooks). The authors explain, ‘Comprehending informational texts, compared to narratives, requires higher level processing, such as using complex academic vocabulary and structures, and these texts are less connected to real world knowledge, which makes them harder to comprehend (Graesser & McNamara, 2011).’”

Moreover, that finding holds without regard to age. Younger students who have grown up with digital reading seem to do better with paper in academic reading, just as do older ones.

So going digital saves money, but perhaps at the cost of reduced learning.

Robinson sensibly concludes, “The price, flexibility, and customizability of digital course materials make them appealing to universities, faculty, and students. But like any innovation, they should be tested and implemented incrementally. Moving forward, users should simply take care when adopting such media. Digital materials should not be treated as a one-size-fits-all solution to rising textbook costs.”

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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