The short answer: yes.

The long answer: it depends upon your ultimate intention.

Space: The Hidden Dimension

Within the brain, the hippocampus is our gateway to memory. Essentially, all new information must pass through this neural structure in order 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 these 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. 

Digital vs. Print

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

Print ensures material is in an unchanging and everlasting three-dimensional location. This is why even though we rarely consciously focus on the spatial organization of paragraphs, many people can recall that a particular passage is, for example, “about half-way through the book on the lower right-hand side of the page.”This unvarying location is embedded within our memory and can be utilized to help trigger relevant content in the future.

Unfortunately, digital mediums have neither an unchanging nor everlasting spatial organization. When we read through a PDF document on a screen, words will begin at the bottom of the screen, move to the middle, then disappear out the top. Without a fixed physical location, we lose this component of memory and cannot draw upon spatial organization as a cue to recall content in the future (leaving us at a distinct disadvantage to those who can).

Modern e-readers have addressed this by allowing users to ‘flip’ between pages (rather than scroll through them). Although a step in the right direction, this still omits the important third dimension of depth, which allows for the unambiguous triangulation of information.

So Now Then …

Print trumps digital when it comes to memory formation. However, this does not mean digital tools are useless.

If memory is not the primary outcome (for instance, if you are more interested in engagement or interactivity), then digital tools offer unique features print could never match. Resizing, re-colouring, and repositioning of text: these digital features can greatly assist readers with visual and/or attention impairments. Additionally, digital tools allow for easy content search, hyperlinking, and quizzing – features that can drive curiosity and engagement.

As such, the secret is not to select a single medium and stick with it come hell-or-high-water.  Rather, the secret is to clarify and explicate the learning outcomes you desire. Once you’re clear on specific task intentions, then you can select the tool best suited to that end.

SAIS looks forward to the author, Jared Cooney Horvath, joining the 2023 Summer Conference. To experience his dynamic presentation style, browse his collection of YouTube videos on a variety of fascinating topics. The following 6–7-minute videos, in which Jared “takes a look at the research so you don’t have to,” would make great discussion starters for your next faculty meeting:

Jared’s Summer Conference keynote will be titled, Your Brain, Your Life – How Stories Drive Perception. This talk will examine how the brain makes sense of reality and what impact this insight has on teaching and learning. His breakout session topic will be Stress, Technology, and Learning – A Volatile Relationship. This session will differentiate between good and bad stress and look at how technology can impact student stress and learning.

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Jared Cooney Horvath (Ph.D., M.Ed.) is a neuroscientist, educator, and author of the best-selling book Stop Talking, Start Influencing: 12 Insights from Brain Science to Make Your Message Stick. He has conducted research and lectured at Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, the University of Melbourne, and over 750 schools internationally. He currently serves as director of LME Global, a team dedicated to bringing the latest brain and behavioral research to teachers, students, and parents alike.