Professor Mary Flanagan, Dartmouth

Carnegie Mellon assistant professor of computer science Geoff Kaufman and Dartmouth professor of digital humanities Mary Flanagan recently published the results of a series of experiments designed to better understand the differences between reading material in print vs. digitally. They found that while digital readers were better able to focus in on small details of any given work, their grasp of the big picture being presented in a work fell off, as did the reader’s ability to grasp abstract concepts and draw nuanced conclusions from the material.

“Smartphones are great devices for looking up quick, concrete facts like the name of an actor or a restaurant we want to try,” Flanagan told ABC Radio. “They may not be best at helping us remember larger concepts, though.”

The researchers conducted four studies with 300 students. In two of the studies, one group of students was asked to read a short story by author David Sedaris, while another was asked to read a table detailing the features of four fictitious Japanese car models and then determine which car was superior. In both cases, students who read content digitally did worse at drawing abstract conclusions than those who took in the same information in printed form.

It’s important to note that the study, presented at this year’s ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) conference on computer-human interaction, has not been peer-reviewed and its designers say the results are meant to lead to further study in this space.

To learn more about the ACM CHI 2016 conference, check out:


Assistant Professor Geoff Kaufman, Carnegie Mellon

In a statement released following the study, Carnegie Mellon assistant professor Geoff Kaufman said, “There has been a great deal of research on how digital platforms might be affecting attention, distractibility and mindfulness, and these studies build on this work, by focusing on a relatively understudied construct. Given that psychologists have shown that construal levels can vastly impact outcomes such as self-esteem and goal pursuit, it’s crucial to recognize the role that digitization of information might be having on this important aspect of cognition.”

As Kaufman told the Washington Post in May, ‘”I spend probably three-fourths of my waking hours per day behind a screen,” he said. “If I catch myself reading a journal article in a PDF, and I start to get stuck on the details of the methodology, I’ll just go ahead and print it out.”

To read the Flanagan-Kaufman study in full, check out: