The Love of Paper

My old friend Sam Fee reminded me of an article that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in the early summer suggesting that making it a bit more difficult to learn might, in fact, lead to longer-term retention of basic facts and to deeper understanding of complex concepts. The study cited by the Chronicle suggested that a test group who engaged material presented in less familiar fonts found the initial engagement with a text more difficult but also recalled the material more fully when tested later. 

I teach a mid-sized online class (around 100 students). Three years ago, I abandoned the textbook and replaced the main text in my class with a combination of podcasts, short readings from other books, and public domain primary sources. When I did this, I figured that I would be saving the students money, making the class more portable (all my content can be accessed on a laptop, phone, or tablet), and tailor the reading more specifically to the themes that I emphasized in the class rather than having to work around a generic body of knowledge presented in a textbook.

Needless to say, this approach has flummoxed a small, but significant percentage of my students. The most interesting complaints, however, come from students who simply prefer paper books. I can sympathize, of course: I am reluctant to buy an ebook, if I can get a paper version for close to the same price. I mark up my books with notes in the margins and underlines, litter them with page markers, and even enjoy the aesthetic of books stacked shelves. At the same time, I can’t imagine any of these benefits being worth the price of a textbook for a history class.

I wonder, however, whether encouraging students to read online (even if they hate it) will have benefits for them later. First, more and more of our life will be spent reading texts online. Few jobs for college educated individuals no do not require some significant screen time each week. Second, returning to a point at the beginning of this post, I wonder whether making students have to work just a bit harder to engage the material will improve how well they learn it?

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