Print vs. E-Text: Student Preferences in the Digital Age

By Odette J. Bruneau, Ph. D.

Millennials have grown up with digital text and immediate access to almost any online resource. They have little patience when it comes to waiting for access to anything.  Because of E-books and E-readers like Nook and Kindle, both educational and leisure reading selections are extensive and immediately available. But does it necessarily follow that coming of age in the digital reading era means millennials and those even younger will prefer screen reading to handheld print reading? Emerging research seems to indicate that all readers, regardless of age, tend to prefer text to online reading sources.

In most studies, print books score higher than E-books on measures of general utilization and enjoyment. Tsai and Yen (2014) examined reader willingness to use E-books and E-reading devices. Their findings indicated that while there were positive influences on the ease of use of the E-readers, there was no similar positive influence on perceived enjoyment. Direct Textbook conducted a survey and found 72% of college students prefered traditional textbooks to electronic text for reasons like ease of reading, cost, ability to physically highlight, reduced eyestrain, and freedom from Internet access (Bolkan, 2015). Rosenwald (2015) stated, “Digital natives prefer reading in print” (np). He supported this statement with evidence from the Pew Society findings that indicated the highest print readership among 18-29 year olds. These participants included in their preference for print a love for the smell of books, ease of following, ability to more carefully read, and the difficulty of keeping place in digital text. Reporting in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Chen (2012) noted that students find E-textbooks clumsy and therefore underutilize them. Similarly, Gregory (2008) noted that students found E-textbooks hard to navigate. Gattiker, Lowe, and Terpind (2012) reported that as many as 50% of college students print their online textbooks-generally at college expense, because they want a portable copy. When asked, students overwhelmingly chose print textbooks over e-textbooks (Gerhart, Peak, & Prybutok, 2015). Their research used an E-textbook, TTF (Task Technology Fit) model and concluded that when students perceive the fit between their learning task and the technology (E-text) they recognize the value and exhibit greater buy-in.

When comprehension is examined, print either outperforms electronic models or no statistical difference is found. Tanner (2014) examined optical, cognitive, and metacognitive outcomes of digital vs. print media and concluded that print books are still best suited for all of these tasks. He noted that E-readers lack the haptic qualities that print books provide. Mangen, Walgermo, and Bronnick (2013) compared paper copy with a PDF model and found that the paper readers out-performed the digital readers on comprehension and the ability to mentally reconstruct a text. Margolin, Driscoll, Toland, and Kegler (2013) studied 90 college students using paper, computer (PDF), and e-reader formats to determine comprehension differences. Although they found no difference among the groups they did note that older readers with less comfort using technology may respond differently and they concluded that there is a need to continue to present print text even while supporting e-technology and integrated technology skills. Mayes, Sims, and Koonce (2001) found no difference in comprehension between screen and text, but did find a significant difference in perceived workload and comprehension. Those using the screen format indicated a perception of greater workload. Sidi, Ophir, and Ackerman (2016) investigated whether the inferiority in comprehension generally found with screen presentation would continue if the tasks were brief. Their findings support the conclusion that metacognitive judgments were of lower quality when using a screen presentation, even when the task was brief.  Chen, Cheng, Chang, Zheng, and Huang (2014) compared the comprehension of 90 college students using tablet, computer, and text formats. On measures of shallow comprehension, text reading scored higher; however, on measures of deep comprehension those participants with high levels of tablet familiarity performed significantly better. Overall it appears that a text presentation continues to result in higher comprehension, although familiarity and facility in the use of technology contribute to more balanced outcomes.

There continues to be a preference for leisure reading and academic reading in a print format. Readers report that they appreciate the ease of access, the portability, the tactile aspects, and the ability to easily return to previous pages and references provided by print text. While it may be due to familiarity and ease of use, comprehension seems to be higher with print text. E-books and E-readers are now an established part of our literary offerings and holdings, their use and availability are likely to expand. Schools, colleges, libraries, and families will add more E-books to their collections. But it is safe to say that for now, hand-held, bound paper books continue to be the first choice of most readers. Book critic David Ulin seems to sum up the prevalent feeling in these words,

I think in pages, not in screens: I like the idea of the book as object, of the book as artifact, of reading as a three-dimensional, tactile experience in which the way a text looks or feels or even smells has an influence of how or whether I engage (Ulin, 2010, p. 121). 


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Chen, A. (2012, August 22). Students find e-textbooks ‘clumsy’ and don’t use their interactive features. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from:’t-use-their-interactive-features/39082

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Mayes, D. K., Sims, V. K., & Koonce, J. M. (2001). Comprehension and workload differences for PDF and paper-based reading. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 28(6), 367–378.

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Tanner, M. J. (2014). Digital vs. print: Reading comprehension and the future of the book. SLIS Student Research Journal, 4. Retrieved from:

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Ulin, D. (2010). The lost art of reading. Seattle, WA: Sasquatch Books.