Landing : Athabascau University

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. 



  • Richard Smith March 18, 2012 - 8:03pm

    Sir, I too have struggled with studying from an ebook.  One approach that I have found effective is to use GoodReader for the iPad.  It imports PDF files and allows me to use a stylus to annotate each page with highlighting, free-hand drawing, colours etc.

    I have found that the act of adding my own scribbles makes the page much more memorable to me.  While studying, I tend to lock the orientation to portrait and display an entire page at a time to avoid zooming.  This way, the same page is always shown in the same way with my annotations in the same place.  It often makes the text slightly smaller than I might like but the tradeoff is that I have a consistent view with my own shorthand learning aids and I don't have to carry around 20 pounds of textbooks with me.

    GoodReader also has the ability to crop the top, bottom, left and right margins so that the text becomes slightly larger.  Lastly, I add my own bookmarks to make it more personal to me.

    I like the idea of hashing a watermark.  Perhaps colour could be integrated into this algorithm.  I find that different colours are a great way to trigger the ability to recall the page.



  • Jon Dron March 19, 2012 - 10:09am

    Thanks Rich

    I too use GoodReader for many things - it's great for marking and commenting on student essays, for instance. I think it's a very good point that annotations can make a huge difference to how much you remember and that's a crucial skill to employ, though I'm not sure that electronic annotations are always as useful as marks made with a pencil on paper when it comes to remembering content as they tend to look more uniform (but perhaps that's my generation and upbringing - might just be that I've not learned well enough yet!). Certainly not the same as a well-thumbed library book where annotations are shared and the text becomes like mediaeval glosses. Adding your thoughts to my suggested solutions, however, would be neat, especially with the ability to share - each annotation would become a further bit of context that would help recall location of a particular bit of content, even if you were not the originator of the annotation.

    It's less useful with e-books, where there is no distinct page layout because the flow changes according to the level of zoom, screen resolution and aspect. While I make extensive use of various e-readers' annotation tools and very much like the ability to find notes I have made and paste them elsewhere, there is more offloading of memory into the machine and less need to retain the knowledge in my head so, again, it's not as good as paper if what we are concerned with is retention and recollection of the content. That's a slightly trickier problem to solve as the re-flowing of text is one of the great advantages of electronic formats and one I'd not want to lose.


  • Jocelyn Decoste March 19, 2012 - 12:58pm

    There are many tools that can be used to enhance the experience. One I like on my iPad is iAnnotate but it still has his problems and issues. I will have to try GoodReader, although some reviews are not really glorifying. Now, these are products only. The experience has to be fluid and easy. I have yet to find the perfect product that will help me read and learn using eBooks. The best feature for me is the dictionary. I can highlight a or many word(s) and get a definition right away within a few taps. In addition, the page marker, highlighter and the ruler assistant are great when they can be used. Perhaps the next generation of eBooks will allow me to pencil in my notes and annotations. 




  • Jon Dron March 19, 2012 - 1:15pm

    Absolutely - in most ways I think ebooks are better than paper, or payrus  scrolls, or tablets of clay, though each technology has some very compelling benefits that the others lack. Much as I like books as objects, love the smell and feel of them, and recognise that current technologies mean that they are better for a couple of things (big pictures where you want to see the whole thing at once, reading in the bath, reading when away from a power source for a few days etc), I far prefer e-reading to reading from paper for most of the things I read. It's just better in almost every way. However, if paper has advantages when it comes to knowledge retention, then I think we need to improve the e-readers to match and possibly improve on those benefits. It took a while for bound books to almost match the strengths of scrolls, but they eventually almost got there (though they have never caught up with the variable width benefits of scrolls). With electronic tools, we can move a lot faster to evolve them and I think we should.

    ps. my favourite thing about GoodReader is file management: it's about the best tool for that available on the iPad. Reading and annotating are useful extra benefits for me.

  • Richard Smith March 22, 2012 - 7:50am

    I agree that I much prefer to read my books electronically these days.  While it is true that I am more comfortable studying from POTs (Plain old Textbooks ;->), I find that each time I force myself to study from PDF, I get slightly more comfortable with it.  Perhaps it's just a skill that needs to be developed or an aquired taste (like skim milk!)

    However, this conversation has got me thinking that, if the visceral experience is not quite as good, are there things we could do to improve other aspects of the experience? One that comes to mind is the concept of combining social media with textbooks.  We could start out by writing an etext reader that would allow us to add our own hand written or typed annotations and questions to the text but we could take it further by writing a web service that would allow our etext reader to send these annotations to a central server.  Then, we could share each person's annotations as an onion skin type of layer so that each person in the class could see the annotations of all of his or her classmates.  There would also be the ability of each student to turn on or off each onion skin if they didn't find a certain classmates notes to be of value.  We could also set up administration so that only students in the same class or same school or same year could see the annotations.

    This might be kind of neat.  Imagine this scenario:  I am reading the text and come to a section that I don't understand.  I place a handwritten annotation (or maybe even a special symbol) beside the text that asks for help.  You understand this concept well and reply with an answer.  Another student adds more comments and we generate a discussion.  The cool thing about this is that the conversation would not be relagated to a discussion board somewhere, it would be located in the textbook, right at the location of the issue.  Also, the teacher could choose to make this discussion permanent so that future years could see it.  The writer of the textbook could view the annotations to see where he or she needed to improve the explanations.

    Hey, maybe we just invented something! ;->



  • Jon Dron March 22, 2012 - 10:21am

    That sounds like a good project for a masters student :-) Yes, there are benefits to e-readers that are hard or impossible to achieve with paper. PDF is a horrible format to read on an e-reader though - I'm hoping it will eventually become a small niche product as it is a rather poorly optimised interim format packed with irritating skeuomorphs inherited from its pulpy past. I've tried things like GoodReader's text extraction as well as other more dedicated PDF-epub conversion tools, but there are usually too many glitches and characters added that typically make it just as bad when converted as in the original.

    The social enhancement is not *too* far off what Amazon already does with its Kindle - you can share your annotations, clips etc via Facebook and Twitter, and make use of popular highlights to get something more like mediaeval glosses than a peelable onion, but the basic plumbing seems to be in place for this. It would be worthwhile investigating other readers to see whether they have it. I gave up after trying about a dozen a couple of years back, mainly because I read on an iPad and sharing between iPad apps is limited, so it's simpler to only use a handful of well-known readers, but it sounds like the beginnings of a very good idea.