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Paper-based vs. Digital Textbooks: Student Impressions

Communication Intern, Jacqueline Ling Communication Intern, Jacqueline Ling

Dear Faculty,

Jacqueline Ling, a communication intern for The Wheel, wrote this piece. She is a junior pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and a minor in Professional Writing at UC Davis. Outside of her academic studies, Jacqueline sequences DNA at the UCDNA Sequencing Facility, and also serves as the VP of Public Relations and Marketing for Alpha Chi Omega. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring new places and trying new foods.

For many students, the decision of buying traditional paper-based textbooks rather than a digital equivalent can prove to be a dilemma: both offer benefits and disadvantages. Faculty must determine which option is better suited for their teaching styles and the needs of their courses. After interviewing several students about their personal preferences (with regard to efficacy, efficiency, and cost), I have detailed the following strengths of paper-based and digital textbooks. 
  • Productivity. Many students opine that reading the material for their classes in a physical textbook offers fewer distractions than digital versions, leading to a more focused and productive study session. The information is presented to them in a straightforward, organized, and manageable manner such that everything they need to know is right in front of them. 
  • Note-taking. The added simplicity of annotating directly on the pages and making connections between different concepts are more efficient due to the ease of flipping pages, rather than scrolling through the material on a screen or waiting for the pages to load on the device. Some research indicates that taking notes with pen and paper encourages the student to learn actively and to engage with the material; this, in turn, leads to more effective studying. In his article “Attention, Students: Put Your Laptops Away,” James Doubrek refers to research collected by Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles; they find two ideas central to the benefits of note-taking: “The first idea is called the encoding hypothesis, which says that when a person is taking notes, ‘the processing that occurs’ will improve ‘learning and retention.’ The second, called the external-storage hypothesis, is that you learn by being able to look back at your notes, or even the notes of other people.” That being said, digital platforms also allow users to annotate readings with highlighters and pens too—so effectiveness depends on the preference of the individual. 
  • Affordability. Many students express that they would buy the physical copies of textbooks if they were more wallet-friendly. Digital textbooks are most likely cheaper than their physical counterparts because “there are no printing and shipping fees,” says Madeline Thompson, a second-year political science major. Other students, including Connor Lynch, a third-year mechanical engineering student, and Robin Weathers, a fourth-year neurobiology, physiology, and biology major, echo these ideas and explain that they prefer to use paper-based textbooks rather than online PDF versions. However, the costs of physical textbooks frequently sway them the other way; Lynch says, “eTextbooks are more accessible as there are more versions on the Internet. I wouldn’t need to spend 80-something dollars on a textbook for a single class.” Therefore, format preferences are subjective to each student and what they value most (and can afford). 
  • Eco-friendliness. Thompson indicates that digital textbooks are eco-friendly because no paper is being used—textbooks use a lot of paper, and people also print many documents including practice exams and study guides. Some online textbooks can be shared from person to person, saving many trees from being cut down and processed into paper. 
  • Convenience. Some students have expressed that online textbooks are more convenient than paper-based textbooks because of accessibility. Students using e-texts no longer need carry heavy textbooks in their backpacks all day because they can read the books on a laptop, phone, tablet, or e-reader. Technology continues to improve, and people today have many of the same functions with digital textbooks, like highlighting and annotating, as they would with their paper counterparts. 
Students choosing between paper-based and digital textbooks will consider productivity, note-taking abilities, affordability, eco-friendliness, and convenience. Accommodating the learning styles and tools of all their students, faculty should make both options available to students. In one of my previous classes, the professor recommended students to read the text that was pertinent to the course, and encouraged students to use whatever format of the textbook they preferred. Addressing the paper-based versus digital textbook discussion is important in helping students to succeed in the course without having to sacrifice their personal learning styles. 


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