Introducing the new article series from Science of Learning expert Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath ...



The short answer: yes.


The long answer: it depends upon your ultimate intention.




Within the brain, the hippocampus is our gateway to memory. Essentially, all new information must pass through this neural structure (like water through a pipe) for it to be converted into long-term memory.


Lining the hippocampus are millions of tiny structures called ‘place cells’. These cells continuously and subconsciously encode both the spatial layout of whatever objects we are interacting with and our physical relationship to those objects.


For instance, if I were to place you in a maze, place cells would not only map out the global pattern of the maze, but also your unique location within that pattern as you walked through the maze.

This means spatial layout is an integral aspect of all newly formed memories.


Chances are you’ve never explicitly memorized the location of your stapler, mug, and other items on your desk … but if someone were to unexpectedly re-arrange these items, you’d immediately recognize something is amiss.


This is spatial layout in action. 




When reading passages are short (3 pages or less), there does not appear to be any difference between print and digital: people learn equally-well from both mediums. However, when reading passages stretch beyond 3 pages, print almost always outperforms digital.


Printed mediums ensure that material remains in an unchanging and everlasting three-dimensional location. This is why -- even though we rarely pay conscious attention to the spatial organization of paragraphs -- we can usually recall that a particular passage is “about half-way through the book, on the bottom section of the right-hand page”. This fixed location is embedded within our memory, and can be utilized to help trigger relevant content in the future.

Unfortunately, digital mediums support neither an unchanging nor an everlasting spatial organization. When reading a PDF document, for example, words will begin at the bottom of the screen; move through the center; and ultimately disappear out the top. Without a fixed physical location, we lose an important component of memory and cannot draw upon spatial organization as a useful cue to recall content later on (which leaves us at a distinct disadvantage to those who can).


Modern e-readers have partially addressed this issue by allowing users to ‘flip’ between pages, rather than scrolling through them. However, although this is a step in the right direction, it still omits the important third dimension of depth which allows for the unambiguous triangulation of information.




Printed materials trump digital-text when it comes to memory formation. However, this does not mean that digital mediums are useless.


If memory is not your primary objective (for instance, if you are more interested in engagement or interactivity), then digital tools can offer unique features that print could never match.

Digital features like re-sizing, re-coloring, and repositioning of text can greatly assist readers with visual and/or attention impairments. Additionally, digital mediums support things like easy searching, hyperlinking, and quizzing -- which can all boost curiosity and engagement.


Accordingly, the secret is not to select a single medium and stick with it regardless of context.


Instead, the secret is to clearly understand the specific learning outcomes you desire from any given task or activity, and then select the medium that best supports those outcomes.


Help spread the idea by sharing it with your peers and colleagues ...

Not on the list? Click below to join the LME Community ...