Students Prefer Print for Serious Academic Reading

E-reader use is on the rise, and the textbook market is shifting toward customizable digital products. Are students ditching print in favor of electronic alternatives for their academic reading? A forthcoming small study from the City University of New York asked that question and found that, like previous generations, at least some Millennials still prefer reading long texts and academic selections in print.

The study, “Student Reading Practices in Print and Electronic Media,” to be published in September 2014 in the journal College & Research Libraries, tracked the reading habits of 17 CUNY students through diary entries, interviews, and discussion groups over the course of two weeks. The students were mostly juniors, seniors, and graduate students, and most were younger than 25.

The research found that they almost always used e-book readers, mobile devices, and tablet computers for nonacademic reading but relied on paper printouts for academic reading.

The study’s author, Nancy M. Foasberg, a humanities librarian at CUNY’s Queens College, acknowledged the difficulties in generalizing from such a small sample. But the takeaway is that “the students in the study really wanted to use print to read for serious academic purposes,” Ms. Foasberg said. They reported that computers and e-books were “fine for less serious work,” but when they “really wanted to get work done, they gravitated to print.”

Having studied e-book adoption in the past, Ms. Foasberg said, she was curious about the reading habits of today’s college students. There are “a lot of misconceptions about Millennials” as a digital generation, she said.

Several students in Ms. Foasberg’s study expressed a distaste for digital textbooks. Some who had used e-books said they would not use them again because they found the embedded links distracting and because they could not interact with the content as they could with print texts—highlighting or taking notes in the margins, for instance. And since the students found themselves printing out digital texts, whatever money they had saved by not buying printed copies was largely lost to printing costs.

Perhaps most notably, many of the study participants said they saw themselves as belonging to the generation before the first truly digital generation. When she was in high school, one 21-year-old student said, “everybody was still using textbooks, and it was only when I got to college that it started to change more and more.” Another participant said that perhaps later generations would be more comfortable using digital textbooks and e-readers.

Ms. Foasberg suggested that the next wave of college students might be more drawn to digital texts simply because they had been educated more through digital learning and online exercises. According to a Pew Research study published on Tuesday, a majority of secondary-school teachers now say technology use benefits students in middle and high schools, with 40 percent saying they have students contribute to a classroom wiki or Web site.

Ultimately, though, it seems that if a student wants to read, she will use whatever medium is available. One participant in the CUNY study told Ms. Foasberg that she had read an entire book on her phone while on vacation because she simply didn’t have anything else to read.

Correction (7/17/2013, 11:45 a.m.): The headline has been changed to delete a misleading reference to students’ not preferring books for serious reading.

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