The next in our series of student researcher reflections on reading is from Rachel Bartley (UCL). Rachel shares her thoughts on how her own reading practices and preferences relate to what she’s learnt from conducting a literature review of reading (online and in print).
Reading the literature about reading best-practice, annotation and technology for this project has been, unsurprisingly, a self-conscious endeavour. Whilst my hopes that I would emerge a much speedier, more effective, and critical reader were perhaps a tad optimistic, it has made me think about and reflect on reading far more than I ever did as a student. Studying History at both undergrad and postgrad level, academic reading made up the majority of my degrees and whilst I would hope that I improved over that period, I never truly considered techniques or approaches to improve my reading skills.
Whilst my academic reading pre-Covid involved a fairly equal balance of digital and print reading, I have consistently preferred reading digitally. The ease of downloading, highlighting, copy & pasting, and the search function all make it so much easier on a practical level to read, take notes, and complete essays. In comparison, reading academic books in print is so much more effort; staggering home from the library with my body weight in books, some of which inevitably turn out to be irrelevant, reading between the lines of years of highlighting, and recruiting various household objects in an attempt to balance and bookmark multiple books and pages at once. With that in mind, the decision to read digitally seemed like an obvious one for me even before it became a necessity in lockdown.
Yet the more I read for the Active Online Reading project, the clearer it becomes that print consistently outperforms digital reading: across genre, length of text, and time set. Studies suggest that the physicality of the book and the two-page frame allows readers to better navigate their ways around the text as well as assisting recall. Despite this, according to Baron (2021), digital readers emerge with a falsely inflated sense of their performance and tend to (wrongly) believe themselves to read better digitally, perhaps a delusion I too have been guilty of.
However, I will admit that print-reading offers the crucial advantage of presenting far fewer distractions. I have set out on multiple occasions intending to read an article for an essay and half an hour later discovered myself retaking the ‘The Ultimate Which Sex and the City Character Are You?’ quiz for a second time because I refuse to accept that I’m a Charlotte(!?!). In contrast, when reading a printed text away from my devices, the distractions are generally limited to staring out the window, and, whilst I do this liberally, it doesn’t disrupt my reading in the same way.
The conversations and exploration around the differences between digital and print reading also offer interesting insights into different ways of reading. In particular, it invites the distinction between ‘reading’ and ‘using’ texts, the former entailing thorough comprehension and associated more with printed text, the latter delineating a more exploitative and extractive approach to consuming texts, made easier by digital functions. From my experience, I might often set out to ‘read’ for tutorials or essays, hoping to enjoy and engage with texts, but as time pressure mounted, I would resort to ‘using’ texts.
Often the ‘hack’ to reading for essays at university is essentially to read the intro, pick a quote and manipulate it however you can to make it relevant to your essay and tick another box in the mark scheme. Whilst a degree must naturally encourage effective reading, I wonder if assessment methods are truly able to distinguish between students’ abilities to ‘read’ and ‘use’ texts and whether the overarching emphasis on using and exploiting texts can really be the best way to assess and direct students’ learning. Equally, ‘using’ texts is a helpful and inevitable part of research and writing, often anticipated by its authors and editors themselves, and doesn’t rule out meaningful engagement with a text. Whilst perhaps value judgements are unnecessary, I think that it is useful to recognise these as separate skills when thinking about teaching and assessing students.
Reference: N.S. Baron, ‘Know what? How digital technologies undermine learning and remembering,’ Journal of Pragmatics, 175 (2021), 27-37. Online here.