The Transformative Power of Print

Ever try to text or multitask while reading a print book? It can be done, but it’s tricky. For one thing, covers flip shut. Interpersonal Divide author and Iowa State professor Michael Bugeja knew that reading on screens amid digital distractions had degraded comprehension, retention, and the basic experience of reading. So he wanted to see if he could reverse-engineer that decline: would reading a physical book have a salutary effect? Could it disrupt the digital distraction? He decided to test that theory in his Tech & Social Change class. The outcome of that experiment was the basis of an article “And for Extra Credit: Read a Physical Book,” published in May in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The results were illuminating, enough so that he decided to repeat the experiment this past semester. A version of this article appeared on Bugeja’s blog, —ML

Do students really read books anymore and, if so, do they do so online? When was the last time they read a print book? What if students were awarded 25 extra credit points if they brought a print book to class, for verification purposes, and then sent a response about the experience? Students could choose any book on technology, philosophy, and/or social change. For convenience, a bibliography of select, relevant titles was provided to help facilitate selection. That was the assignment, and students readily took advantage of it, only to experience the transformative power of print books.

The vast majority of students struggled with their phones’ insistent pinging to such extent that some shut off their devices and even headed to the campus library—the book’s symbolic home—for the necessary quiet to comprehend the book’s contents. The vast majority of the class rediscovered their love of reading as well as comprehending, perhaps for the first time, how much time they were wasting on phones—texting, browsing, tweeting, etc.—and the consequences of “digital attention deficit disorder.” In sum, they were empowered by focus.

In Spring 2019, the second time the assignment was offered, students were asked to write a response to this question: “Describe how you felt reading a print edition of the book you selected for this assignment.” After sending their responses about reading a print book, students were asked if their comments could be shared in this article. All agreed. Names have been withheld to protect privacy.

While student responses in Spring 2019 largely mirrored those of the preceding class, the latest experiment gave new insight into how students and, in one case, a parent, had to cope with pinging phones.

“Within five minutes of reading my phone was ringing from text messages from my friends but I ignored it just fine. But in a 30-minute span I can’t even count how many times my phone rang. My mom was texting me and because I did not reply she ended up calling me. I was so frustrated at that point I was almost pushed to tears.”

Another student who put the phone on silent could not concentrate on the book without having something to hold in her hand. The student found a remedy: snacking. “I probably ate way too much food because of this book. I did enjoy the break of not staring at my laptop screen.”

Two students were so angry at their Androids that they felt they were being held captive. “I was so interested in the book I actually got mad that my phone kept interrupting; it’s funny I say interrupting like it could talk to me but seriously that ding distracted my reading every single time,” one wrote. Another stated: “Eventually it got to the point where I asked my roommate to hold my phone hostage for at least two hours. It’s crazy the measures that have to be taken to get your attention away from your phone. I came to the sad realization that I am in fact, addicted to my phone (shocker).”

Here are more excerpts from student anecdotes:

Disturbed: “When I first cracked open the book, I tried to listen to music at the same time since that’s what I do when completing homework assignments. After an hour on the same five pages, I realized I was going to have to treat this as a book and not as an assignment. I had to leave the comforts of my bed, remove the headphones from my ears, and put all my technology on Do Not Disturb in order to finish the book. I felt extremely proud of myself for finishing an entire book that was part of a homework assignment (mainly because I rarely ever do).”

Appetizing: “Growing up I was always an avid reader, clinging to the smells and comfortable atmosphere of the public library and the adventurous books it held inside its walls. The closer I got to college, however, the less I found myself picking up hard copy books, instead, falling to the convenience of the Kindle. As wonderful as it is to be able to pull out my phone or iPad and leisurely read on a bus, or in a dull moment, there is always something missing between the book and me. The notifications of text messages or Snapchat always covering up the words I’m trying to devour at the top of the page, hindering the reading experience. Reading a hardcover, in this experience made me realize that in order to comprehend and truly enjoy reading is achieved more than by just having words. It’s like wanting a cheeseburger and googling a picture. The idea of the burger is in front of you. You can touch it look at it, but the connect to this burger is not the same as being able to hold, touch, smell, and even eat the burger.”

Finally focused: “Wow. I can’t think of a more accurate word to summarize what it was like taking the time to pause, purposefully put down my phone and read a physical book. For the first time in a while, after reading a hardcover book, I felt a focus I hadn’t realized I’d been missing.”

Face-down phone: “During my experience reading my selected book, I found that I did have some distractions. My phone, TV, and roommate would sometimes get in the way of my focus on sitting down to read the book and comprehend the information. I would have to silence my phone and turn it face down most times I read so I wouldn’t be distracted.”

kenchiro168 /

Respecting the book: “The typical person can’t just sit down in a quiet place and focus on one thing. I found myself setting up a rewards system: ‘when I read ten pages I can go check Twitter.’ When I would sit down to read I would have to force myself to not look at my phone and when I did pick up my phone, I felt guilty! Like I was actually disrespecting the book. When I forced myself to ignore the distraction of screens, I discovered that I was until able to get lost in the content.”

Calmed down: “For the book that I read in print, I can say I had a good experience—and there was definitely a difference when I read it with my phone next to me or not. When I did have my phone by me, I consistently had the urge to check it, or even just scroll through Twitter. Although, at one point my phone died, so I put it on the charger in the other room. Oddly enough, I was still not completely focused just because I was worried about missing something important. But after a while, I just kept my phone in the other room and eventually calmed down. After calming down, it was easy for me to read the book at a quick pace and still retain information, since I was actually paying attention.”

Gave phone away: “Personally, I thought reading a print book was hard. It was hard mainly because I found myself being distracted. I knew that my phone was going to be a distraction, but I underestimated how much of a distraction it was. Even if I didn’t hear a notification sound I would periodically check my phone just because I felt like I was missing something. I ended up having to turn my phone off and give it to my roommate just so I wasn’t tempted to turn it back on.”

No side effects: “I get headaches often from screens and that is a challenge I have to overcome as a graphic designer who has to stare at the screen for hours at a time. The book did not give me any side effects.”

Break from screens: “I think my favorite thing about reading a physical book is taking a break from screens. I will admit I spend too much time on my iPhone, and as a student my life is on my laptop. Reading is refreshing and makes me feel good—and is a great alternative to watching Netflix or Hulu for entertainment.”

Self-Awareness: “I found myself taking breaks and checking my phone too often for no apparent reason. I wasn’t retaining anything I read and I kept re-reading the parts that I missed. I was getting annoyed. Eventually after getting so distracted and not being able to focus, I set a timer on my phone for an hour and I told myself I couldn’t stop reading my book and letting myself get distracted by technology till the timer went off. It sounds kind of crazy but that’s what I had to do to be focused while I read. Not only did I learn a lot from just reading the book, but I also learned how controlled I am by my device. It made me realize that I give my phone way more attention than needed. After this assignment, I am more conscious about how much I am on my phone especially when doing homework and when I need the most focus.”

Tangibility: “What I found most beneficial about reading a print book versus a digital copy was my ability to highlight quotes and concepts that stand out or resonate with me. I can now pick this book up and glance through what I highlighted to remember what I found to be important while reading. This was also very helpful in writing the book review because I could quickly include the most influential quotes to me in the paper. Overall, I would truly prefer to read a physical copy of a book as opposed to a digital copy.”

Retention: “I am so glad that I took the extra step of buying the book and actually reading the book. I feel that if I would have just read an eBook, I wouldn’t have retained the information correctly and I would have been half reading it due to distractions of being on my computer by text messages, emails, notifications, etc…. This assignment really opened my eyes to show how much I do enjoy reading and how I need to prioritize more time away from my electronics and sit down and read.”

Relaxation: “Lately, I have been getting used to the idea of only using e-books, but reading this hardcover book reminded me of how I used to love books in a physical copy. I read about 50 pages per day, so it was a nice opportunity for me to have a chance to sit down and relax at least once a day…. Overall this experience helped me reduce my daily stress level and to just take a second to sit down after a hectic college day.”

Re-instilled love: “In the beginning my phone was a distraction. I would often check notifications or look on my social media apps. However, after I was finished with chapter one I turned off my phone and kept it in another room so I could focus on reading. I sat in bed, put a candle on and started to read, and wow had time flew by. I forgot about all my other worries/stresses and was truly captivated with the words being read, it relaxed me. I started getting excited for the times of my day that I was able to read the book, to shut off from my phone. When I finished and closed the book I felt greatly accomplished, more so than playing the games on my phone. I’m thankful for this project because it re-instilled my love for reading print books and has got me back in the game. So, thank you.”

Reading the responses of students helps one fully appreciate the addictive nature of smartphones and how they negatively affect critical thinking. It’s encouraging to discover how many enjoyed reading a print book or found the assignment relaxing or educational. Perhaps these testimonials might persuade educators to assign print books rather than e-books or other online reading, mainly because the devices used to access content continuously interrupt and undermine reading comprehension.