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When you’re reading course literature on a screen

A lot of people ask what’s best – reading on a screen or reading from a paper. The answer is not that simple, because a lot points to this being a question of context, habit and personal preference. Even if it’s difficult to say what’s best for you, it’s good to know that most of us don’t read the same way from a paper as we do from a screen. In light of this, here is some advice on what to think about when you’re reading digital course literature.

The focus of this text is on reading “linear” texts on a standard computer screen. The advice will look slightly different if you’re reading texts with links or videos, for instance, or if you have access to newer technology with screens that are better adapted for reading.

Adjust your reading speed

Most people read faster and in less detail on a screen. This is advantageous when the goal is to get an idea of the main theme in a text, but becomes a problem when we want to get a deeper or more nuanced understanding of it. Therefore, it’s a good idea to intentionally slow down if you’re reading a text that you notice is getting more difficult to understand or contains many different components – or if you know that you need to remember details from the text.

Test yourself

In addition to the fact that many of us seem to underestimate the fact that we understand and remember a little less when we’re reading on a screen, we also tend to overestimate how well we understand and remember, in a way we don’t do when reading printed text. But it’s possible to work against this negative effect if you’re aware of it. Actively practice screen reading by testing yourself at regular intervals instead of just continuing to read. Take frequent breaks and write down main ideas, keywords and your own comments. Try shifting your eyes upward and actively remember what you’ve read instead of just rewinding and copying down directly from the screen.

Make the text more manageable

It’s more difficult to get an overview of a text when we’re reading on a screen. The physical experience of turning pages, feeling the weight of the paper in your hand and easily seeing where we are in the text matters when it comes to concentration and how well we remember things. It’s difficult to perfectly simulate the printed text’s overview on a computer, but it’s possible to some extent. You can adjust the document so that you’re able to see an entire page on the screen while you’re reading. To have a new page appear at the click of a button takes less effort and focus, since you don’t have to keep track of where in the text you are when scrolling. In some programs, you might be able to place two pages next to each other so that it looks like an open book. You can also take notes in the form of mind maps or other more visually manageable formats – in order to get a clear picture of where in the text you are. You could also put the table of contents on the desk in front of you and check off the sections you’ve read to get visual input of how much of the text you’ve read and what is left.

Pretend you’re reading a book

All texts look the same on a screen which makes it more difficult for us to distinguish between them in our memory. It becomes more difficult to remember who wrote what text and therefore how the different texts relate to each other. Additionally, many of us seem to not treat texts on a computer with the same importance as the books on our bookshelves. Perhaps you recognise yourself in not putting aside as much time and not taking as many notes when reading digital texts? It’s important here to pause and let some creativity flow. Perhaps you could take notes in different formats and colours for different texts? Is it possible to place yourself in different parts of the room depending on what text you’re reading? Can you create your own covers for the digital texts? You will probably be able to come up with more tricks to make digital documents feel more real and different from each other.

Get rid of distractions

Something that might indirectly make reading on a screen more difficult is the fact that we don’t automatically associate our computers with only reading, instead always associating it with other activities that we usually use our computer for. Perhaps you’re getting outright distracted by notifications or icons that you often click on. Put in some extra effort to get rid of distractions before reading. Close programs you’re not using, turn off the internet and fill the screen with the relevant text so that you don’t get distracted by other things popping up.

Rest your eyes

One last thing worth mentioning is that screen reading can make your eyes tired or give you a headache after a couple of hours. This means that when you’re reading on a screen as opposed to from a paper, it’s even more important to take frequent breaks and to actively practise fixing your gaze on different distances than your screen or to close your eyes for a bit in order for your eyes to recover. You can also try not to read on a screen right before you’re going to bed, as this might disturb your sleep.