screens and academics and OT

Screens and academics: The evidence

Using written text and hand writing notes are the best way to improve understanding of material, but sometimes digital products are the only thing available.

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Screens and academics

Use of screens in the form of computers, tablets, and smart phones may be necessary (even required by professors) to keep pace with academic demands.  However, a lot of research suggests we might not want to ditch written notes or “real” textbooks yet.1-4 A recent meta-analysis found that on almost every cognitive domain, students performed better when they had access to the written version of a text versus the electronic version.5 There is also evidence to suggest that the more exposure one has to digital media, in general, the bigger the divide between comprehension in paper versus text environments (so, yes, our youngest students, those “digital natives” will have an even bigger discrepancy between comprehension when reading written text versus reading a digital text because of learned patterns of behavior in a digital world – ie exposure to number of “likes” as a measure of success).   

Current thinking is that electronic sources encourage superficial reading but deep reading is required for academic work.  As technology evolves, the electronic versions of textbooks increase their ability to engage students in the readings. They are also helping students dive deeper into material.  Newer electronic versions of text books allow students to make annotations in their preferred way. However, the evidence continues to support the use of written text when available.

The data on use of keyboard to take class notes versus hand writing notes in class is similar to that on written book versus digital book formats.  Hand writing notes requires a deeper processing of material as opposed to typing on the keyboard to take notes.  Students who use keyboards in class are more likely to use “verbatim” quotes from the instructor; as opposed to those who take handwritten notes who process material in real time as they take notes. Students who take typewritten notes consistently show poorer comprehension of information on exams and other in-class activities. 

Assessment and intervention 

As an occupational therapist working with students in higher education, it would be important to discuss the way that a student prefers to learn academic material.  In addition to preferences, it is important to consider whether a student’s preferences match their strengths and weaknesses and whether the form they are using is the one they should be using.  So, an OT should know what the student is currently required to use and/or are already using due to other logistics (ie finances, availability). 

If there is a mismatch between any of the above, the OT should have a discussion with the student about the pros and cons of screens versus paper for both text books and taking notes. 

After this, the OT should help students set-up the virtual environment for success.

What to do? Here are some ideas:

  • A student who is distracted by extraneous notifications on a phone or computer might do better with an e-reader that does not simultaneously have access to the web.  Or, make sure that students turn off notifications while reading on-line or download an internet blocker during reading activities (10 best apps to help with distraction can be found here) .
  • If digital text is required, non-scrolling digital text seems preferable to scrolling digital text for decreasing the cognitive load of reading on a screen. Helping students find apps and devices that present written text one page at a time would be helpful.  
  • Other students might need more features help with their understanding of the material – textbooks with interactive visuals and worksheets/reflections embedded might be helpful for students who have difficulty pulling up the main topics of a chapter on their own.
  • Some students might need to go back to the basics of a written text book and use a highlighter and a pen/pencil to put written notes in the margins. 
  • Encourage written notes in class.  If the student has difficulty taking notes, it would be important to help them pick out the main topics and set-up their notes for success.  Teach them how to take good notes.  Be creative – linear “outlines” are not the only (or best) way to take notes!

The OT should encourage deeper processing of academic information to help with student success. If the student uses screens in the classroom, the occupational therapists should help them use it right!


  1. Stoop, J., Kreutzer, P., & Kircz, J. (2013). Reading and learning from screen versus print: A study in changing habits; Part 1. New Library World, 114, 284–300. doi:10.1108/NLW-01-2013-0012
  2. Stoop, J., Kreutzer, P., & Kircz, J. (2013). Reading and learning from screen versus print: A study in changing habits; Part 2. New Library World, 114, 371–383. doi:10.1108/NLW.04-2013-0034
  3. Sun, S. Y., Chich-Jen, S., & Kai-Ping, H. (2013). A research on comprehension differences between print and screen reading. South African Journal of Economic and Management Sciences, 16, 87–101. Retrieved from
  4. Gemma Walsh (2016). Screen and paper reading research – A literature review. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 47(3), 160-173. doi: 10.1080/00048623.2016.1227661
  5. Delgado, P., Vargas, C., Ackerman, R., & Salmerón, L. (in press). Don’t throw away your printed books: A meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on comprehension. Educational Research Review.

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