Instructors Can Help Students Prefer Digital Texts

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Key Takeaways

  • When surveyed about their preference for print or digital textbooks, most students indicated a preference for print.

  • Familiarity with using print texts in learning, aided by the mental markers readers establish using the printed book, support the preference for print despite the cost and accessibility benefits of digital texts.

  • Instructors who model effective use of digital texts in learning can help students overcome their preference for print and take advantage of the convenience and lower cost offered by digital texts.

Each August, undergraduate students from all over the country reappear in my Southern California college town. Recently, I was sitting at a local swimming pool when I noticed three students near me reach into their bags, pull out their textbooks and highlighters, and begin studying. Ironically, I was catching up on research on my iPad, using my favorite reference manager to annotate studies. I couldn't help but chuckle. I was a textbook highlighter, too, while earning my undergraduate in the 1980s, but when I began my doctoral program, I made a commitment to go digital.

I struck up a conversation with the students and asked them if they'd chosen textbooks over digital texts. As I delved, it was clear that each had a reason for choosing print. The young woman next to me shared that her book would span several courses in her program, and she could more easily find previously read content in print. She explained she chose digital for other courses. The other young woman in the group told me she had no choice — the professor required print for the text she was reading. All three nodded their heads, but the young man said he didn't mind that at all. He was accustomed to print texts from high school and hadn't liked digital texts when he tried them.

My recent research on college student textbook preferences had similar findings. The majority of students favored reading from printed text when learning. Few students in my sample reported that their instructors required or strongly recommended the digital version of the course text even if one were available. The smaller number of students in my study who used digital texts indicated they were far more influenced by a well-designed, easy-to-use digital version than they were by instructor interventions. Significantly, when a digital text was required, students were less likely to be satisfied with the text, which indicated to me that students want to be able to choose. My conclusion is that instructors need to understand digital learning, especially digital reading, far better than we do now.

Despite many institutional efforts aimed at meeting students where they are, digital reading preference has not followed the same trajectory that other digital and mobile course content has taken. To be clear, students are definitely purchasing digital texts. Overwhelmingly. But when asked about their preferred method of learning content, a significant number of learners continue to prefer a print version of their course texts.

The reasons behind this preference are complex, but there's much to be gained by moving away from print media to digital learning and teaching. To do so successfully, we must understand the challenges and the solutions that influence student perceptions about their learning.

Brain Games

The two main factors in a decision to buy digital content rather than print are convenience and cost, while preference for print appears to be directly related to learning. When asked, students cite several reasons for purchasing digital texts that relate to time, portability, and greater access. Consider the increasing use of mobile devices. The portability of digital content affords students timesaving workflow options because they can interact with content, instructors, and peers from the screens of their mobile devices. Innovations in digital courseware design — like feature-rich digital textbooks and increased responsiveness in adaptive courseware — enhance the traditional textbook-reading experience, and open educational resource platforms increase low-cost options. But students' buying patterns still do not align with a preference for digital media when it comes to reading text for the purpose of learning.

So why is that? We know students today are busier and more networked than previous generations. The interface of learning platforms has also changed, so students must manage time differently than past learners. Is it true that we are wired to learn better from print? Or is a student preference for print more indicative of a lack of research about digital learning? What if learning by reading digitally is a discrete skill that needs to be embedded into the course content and modeled by the instructor?

Research specifically related to the differences between reading print text and digital text is beginning to emerge, but digital reading and comprehension remains largely unstudied. We do know certain things happen in the brain when reading in a print-based medium that do not happen with a digital version of the same text.

When reading in print, our brains perform a function much like navigating a car to a location for the first time. We collect spatiotemporal markings about the book itself. Just as we would remember a gas station on the corner where we turned left, our brains catalog chapter beginnings and endings, white spaces on the pages, and any special font treatment of characters as part of the book's design. We also register the heft as we progressively turn pages, noting when we pass the middle of the book. These markers are stored so that when taken collectively, we can return to a location in a print text by conjuring those markers. We open the book and approximate heft on each side and flip forward or back, browsing white spaces or chapter sections for familiar posts. None of this happens in digital versions and may account for the preference for print.

It might be possible to learn digital reading strategies that would offset that preference for print. Perhaps our preference comes merely from learned familiarity with the medium. If students could develop that familiarity with digital text, they'd have easier access to the most effective learning medium.

Digital Learning, Digital Teaching

While I could not connect instructor interventions with student preference for digital text, I believe instructors might be the linchpin for student success in digital learning. One meta-analysis of a national digital-textbook pilot supports this. A subset of students surveyed for the 2013 Internet2 pilot1 were more satisfied with the piloted digital textbook and believed they learned better from digital text than print.

These students reported that their instructors modeled the digital textbook features or had provided commensurate embedded support using the digital interfaces. The result was higher student satisfaction with the text and students expressing the intention to use digital texts in future courses.

What was the common thread? Each instructor had opted into the pilot and had a level of resources available in terms of training and student support. Overt adoption of digital texts with strategic support for faculty and students alike might make the difference.

Consider that many digital behaviors are self-taught. Despite decades of digital reading in the academic realm, faculty across institution types and those training future educators are more likely to have learned print-reading strategies in their early education and are likely to continue to rely on those strategies as researchers and instructors. Few could confidently model digital reading strategies to their students and fewer could cite a body of seminal research supporting those strategies.

While many digital learning platforms have kept pace with changing student preferences, learning how to navigate these interfaces is largely the student's responsibility. It's no surprise that ease of use of an interface is the most significant determinant of student satisfaction. After all, why spend time learning a confusing new platform when you can much more easily pick up a book and start learning right away? This is why it's important that platforms use intuitive design or an intentional experience for the learner.

Because faculty aren't likely to have been taught formal digital reading habits, most college students are likely to be self-taught. Institutions commonly situate technical support and academic tutoring in the library or an academic student center. The resource for student study skills is not embedded directly within a course, creating a situation where students must seek a unique type of study support instead of counting on their instructor to guide them. Academic institutions that understand the importance of user interface and supporting faculty to better model digital texts will be better positioned to support students.

Instructor modeling, then, is one way that college students can increase their digital fluency when reading course materials. Institutions that support instructors through faculty development and provide student-ready resources that can be embedded into the course are more likely to support digital learning. Instructors who provide digital text modeling are also building student study habits and influencing students' ability to learn better from relatively lower-cost digital textbooks.

Model Digital Conversations

Instructors can model effective use of digital texts in a variety of ways depending on the features of the digital reading content. Common among these is the ability to digitally engage with the text through digital annotations, a feature found in some of the earliest digital reading platforms. Mimicking the print counterpart, digital texts frequently include annotation capabilities to give learners the opportunity to mark up their text as they read. This ability to have a "conversation" with the author or the content has been espoused since Mortimer Adler wrote his seminal work How to Read a Book in 1940. A powerful reading strategy for decades, the marginalia Adler promoted includes marking up the text and inserting comments and questions directed to the author.

In a digital text, this conversation extends to include the instructor and peers within the course. Instructors now have a distinct digital advantage when promoting this important dialogue through shared highlights and annotations, and they can easily create discourse around course content, providing a new way to interact with the text.

Instructor annotations may be the one aspect of digital reading about which we have the most positive findings. While screen reading has been difficult to study because rapidly changing technologies make it difficult to generalize findings, digital annotations are an aspect of reading behavior that has longitudinal data. Modeling all aspects of a digital interface can increase student fluency with digital content, yet using the annotation features might support an essential digital reading behavior, resulting in higher-level learning.

Students Want to Choose

As my poolside companions shared with me, their reasons for selecting a reading platform can vary by course, by content, and by instructor. Students want to have the option to choose the platform of their course materials. That can mean print vs. digital, but it can also include options about the digital platform. To keep student options in the forefront, campus strategists would be wise to support faculty in modeling digital reading. Digital textbooks are blending into other digital learning content, like open educational resources and adaptive courseware platforms, and students want options there, too. Administrators and instructors who understand digital learning will be better positioned to provide students the best learning experience.


  1. Susan Grajek, Understanding What Higher Education Needs from E-Textbooks: An EDUCAUSE/Internet2 Pilot (Research Report), Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, July 2013.

Nori Barajas-Murphy, EdD, is director of Grant Projects, Online Learning Consortium.

© 2017 Nori Barajas-Murphy. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.