Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read?

The answer to this question seems to be a guarded ‘yes’. The issue seems to be that we remember things in books not just because of content but because of context – where it was on the page, where it was in the book. In fact, i can sometimes recall things like page blemishes and discoloration too. This is something that has bugged me about most e-readers for some time and it seems very easily soluble and, in fact, easy to potentially improve upon. Most e-readers do allow you to view a bar showing your location relative to the thing you are reading, though this is not as easy to accurately recall as a location in a physical book and in most readers is not shown by default. So the first obvious step is to make that more prominent (some have that feature already). When it comes to pages, you are mostly on your own, as where a particular bit of text appears on a screen may not only change from one reading to the next, but also during the course of reading a page. I quite often switch orientation of my iPad, for instance, which usually entails a fair bit of cognitive re-orientation too, as I try to find the place I was reading again. It is worse for fixed-page formats like PDF because they tend to involve a fair bit of scrolling and zooming.

So, beyond the typical location indicator bar, what could we do? Here are a few ideas, that could be combined to provide a richer indication of context than simple location in a book:

  • Show a distinctive abstract pattern next to the text, probably based on a hash of nearby sentences or paragraphs. This would make it easier to find when scrolling through.
  • Very subtly modify every single word using a similar hashing algorithm that takes into account the surrounding text. Thus, every sentence would be uniquely rendered, making it much easier to recall particular passages. This is pretty much what we get from handwritten text, with the benefit of consistent legibility.
  • Use subtle watermarks that are linked to each paragraph, again uniquely rendered using a hashing algorithm.
  • Show small iconic representations (rendered to show the pattern of paragraphs)  of the paper-pages of the original, and their relationship to the current page we are looking at on the e-reader.

With a bit of thought, variations on these kinds of approach might at least help to restore a sense of context. 


Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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