By: Tyler Shores, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

My research focuses upon how we read on screens, compared to printed pages. It’s a topic I’m profoundly interested in because of how our reading habits are changing right under our fingertips — this is especially so at a time when it seems that printed books are surpassing ebooks in terms of our preferred reading medium.

Digital Reading

The topic of digital reading comes up quite a bit while doing PhD research. We all tend to read a lot of articles, often in PDF form, and if you are a tablet owner, a good PDF app is essential. (I’m constantly tinkering with apps but two favorites are: PDF Expert and iAnnnotate. They sync across devices using Dropbox, iCloud, etc. Both of them are paid apps, but trust me that they’re a lot better than the free options).

During my own research project, I’ve noticed that my own reading habits and practices have evolved to become much more medium agnostic. That being said, we all have our preferences: most of my academic and nonfiction reading occurs on my iPad because of the ability to sync my notes across devices, back them up safely in the cloud, and to search documents when I can’t remember exactly what it was I read eight months ago. But I feel that I simply think better in print — for fiction reading, and for books that I am heavily engaged with, paper is still my default.

Recent research at Stanford University shows what happens in the brains of graduate students while doing close reading (although most of us don’t read Jane Austen novels while in MRI tubes, it’s fascinating interdisciplinary research, nevertheless).

If you’re interested in learning more about the digital reading question, I highly recommend this link which has an excellent collection of studies, research, and surveys on digital reading habits from the UC Berkeley Center for Teaching & Learning: “Recommended Sources for Digital Reading.”

Digital Notes

Cornell note taking

Speaking of note-taking, patter’s advice on keeping a reading journal is a must-read: “managing the #phd –  keeping a reading journal.” I alternate between Microsoft OneNote as a PhD notes solution as well as Evernote because of their multi-platform support and many useful functions and power user tips. (Personally I like OneNote’s notebooks structure for my personal writing project).

But, is digital always better than analog? Maybe. And sometimes maybe not (for example, NPR: “Attention Students: Put Away Your Laptops“).

For those of us that prefer old school pencil and paper, I use my own modified version of the Cornell Method. Of course, the choice is rarely an either/or proposition — sometimes the best tools are the ones that we have at hand, and a combination of print and digital resources can in fact coexist peacefully.

note pay attentionDigital Distraction

What about our attention and digital distraction? Based on some interesting research from Larry Rosen, it would seem that we multitask a lot, perhaps even more than we realize. Not only are distractions everywhere, but articles on distractions are everywhere. For one example, here’s a good run down on some of the relevant research, via the New York Times blog: “How to deal with digital distractions.”

It’s all well and good to tell ourselves to simply pay attention. Sometimes that works, but sometimes we find our digital habits to be so ingrained that we’re not even aware when we are digitally wandering. Luckily there’s apps for that, too. Apps like Freedom are behavior controls we can use to really limit what we do on the Internet and when.

But what kinds of things work for you? Would love to hear what you think in the comments!

Tyler Shores is a second year PhD student at the Faculty of Education, researching digital and print reading as part of the Centre for Children’s Literature Research. For more generally on the print vs. digital topic, feel free to visit his blog at: or follow Tyler on Twitter: @tylershores

Posted by:fersacambridge

5 replies on “The PhD and Reading in the Digital Age

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