Three Ways to Read Better on a Computer, Tablet, or Phone

Reading on screen versus on paper may impact how much you remember. Here’s what you can do.

Photo: Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash

Coursework and research projects require a lot of reading. As more and more articles and books become available in electronic format, it's likely you’ll be doing much of this reading on a screen. However, research studies have shown that you may retain less information when you read something on screen rather than on paper. 

Reading on screen versus on paper 

Researchers have found problems with retention when reading onscreen materials. One study of tenth-grade students found that they had better recall and had better reading comprehension when they read a text on paper versus on screen. Another study from 2005 looked at changes in reading over the course of the last ten years. It showed that when people read on-screen, they tend to jump around more in the text rather than reading in a linear, focused manner.  

What’s more, some researchers contend that by reading often in this way, we might be rewiring our brains in a way that prevents us from reading intently and deeply when we need to.

Yikes. What can you do? First, do note that while there are individual studies showing a disadvantage when reading texts that involve higher levels of concentration on a screen, there don’t seem to be hard conclusions yet and some of the research is problematic  

Still, if you suspect you focus less when reading on screen, it might be a good idea to print out the papers that are especially important for you to comprehend 

Three tips for reading better on screen 

Since you’ll likely not want to print out all your readings, though, here are some other things you can do to better remember what you read on screen: 

  1. Eliminate distractions and stop multitasking
    In many studies, the difference comes down to the fact that we tend to get more distracted by other things or multitask when we read onscreen. So, one tip is simply to focus only on your reading. Turn off any notification services or go offline and only then start reading 

  2. Survey the text first
    Some studies have shown that the spatial elements of a paper or book play a role in how we remember information in it. Knowing the length of a paper helps you mentally size it up. Try to replicate this in your digital reading by scrolling to the end of a text before you start reading it. Scan for abstracts, section headings, figures or tables in the text and quickly skim a little of the introduction and conclusion. Then, go back and read the text more carefully.

  3. Make an effort to interact with the text 
    Marginal notes are helpful for recall when you review something you read on paper. If you’re reading on screen, you can use digital tools to annotate the text. For example, in Citavi you can save comments as well as indirect quotations in which you rephrase the main idea of a quotation in your own words. This video shows how to do this.
    In addition to Citavi, there are a number of other programs and apps that make reading from a laptop more fruitful. You’re likely familiar with the annotation options in your PDF viewer, but other tools can help as well. For more recommendations, visit the Reading on Screen blog to find a list of programs that work with the device you’re using. 
    Whatever you choose, this interaction with the text plants its main ideas more firmly in your memory and can help you overcome the disadvantages that can occur when reading on a screen.  

Are there any advantages to reading on screen? 

Of course! If you save comments to your computer while reading, you can go back to them later on and search through them to spark new ideas. You can also keep all your papers organized in one place and find them more easily years later if you need them. Also, reading on a mobile device lets you fit reading in anywhere you are, which can be especially useful for supplementary reading or staying up-to-date on new developments in your field.  

What tips do you have for reading on a screen? Do you notice any difference to reading on paper? Please share your thoughts on our Facebook page!

Recommended Reading

Wolf, Maryanne (2007): Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 978006093384



Created by: Jennifer Schultz – Published on: 4/4/2018

About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.

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