• Although digital testing would be easier to implement, paper is an essential tool in Sri Lanka’s education system. As of 2020, only 35% of Sri Lankans had access to the Internet.
  • Recent studies in Norway, New Zealand, and the US indicate that students perform better on paper versions of standardized tests than they do on their digital counterparts.
  • Research confirms that “deeper” reading occurs when a piece of text is consumed in printed form. On the other hand, reading in digital format encourages “skimming” and only tricks the brain into believing that the content has been fully understood.

By Mark Davis


Have you ever wondered what might happen if a country ran out of paper? At the end of March 2022, students in Sri Lanka were unable to take their all-important term tests. Due to an acute paper shortage, authorities across the country have postponed these tests indefinitely—impacting nearly 4.5 million students. These tests are part of the continuous testing that takes place throughout Sri Lanka’s academic year, and they help determine whether a student can move up to the next grade.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, mass digitization has overtaken the world. The education industry has certainly not been immune to this trend, so why not just administer these tests digitally? The testing would be easier to implement, and it would prevent millions of students from missing out on progressing to a new grade level. There’s just one problem—as of 2020, only 35% of Sri Lankans had access to the Internet. Paper is an essential tool in the country’s education system. Without paper, everything stops.

Print and Sustained, Mindful Reading

OK, so paper is certainly necessary to Sri Lanka’s education industry, but what about the rest of the world? Recent studies in Norway, New Zealand, and the US indicate that students perform better on paper versions of standardized tests than they do on their digital counterparts. In the US, the negative effects of exam digitization are especially felt among more vulnerable students—for example, those at lower reading levels, those with special educational needs, or those for whom English is a secondary language.

While the print and digital mediums both have important roles to play in education, studies have shown that print is overwhelmingly required for sustained, mindful reading. This also extends to examinations. The texture of the paper and the tangible feeling it offers in a student’s hand helps to focus the mind in a high-pressure testing environment. This can aid the comprehension of more nuanced exam questions. Does this mean that Sri Lanka’s students would automatically be put at a disadvantage if they were forced to take their exams digitally? Research indicates that they would.

Print Volumes and Home Learning

There is no question that the pandemic highlighted the importance of digital learning. During the lockdown phase, digital technology helped ensure that education was able to continue outside of a physical classroom. Even so, research has consistently shown that digital learning does have some shortcomings when it comes to comprehension and overall academic performance.

According to Keypoint Intelligence’s 2020 and 2021 Future of the Office studies, 40% of respondents noticed an increase in printing at home due to the increased requirement for home learning. In fact, 61% of 2021 US respondents reported that their children’s schoolwork was the primary reason for the increase in print volume. Since virtual learning environments and learning management systems require most of the assigned activities to be completed digitally, why would printing among home-based learners increase? It’s all about the benefits that printed materials can bring to the learning process.

Other Benefits of Print

A 2018 study published in the Education Research Review examined the reading habits of over 170,000 participants. This research confirmed that comprehension of information was better when the participants read printed content rather than digital content, particularly for chunks of text that exceeded 500 words. The study also found that “deeper” reading occurs when a piece of text is consumed in printed form. Meanwhile, reading in digital format encourages “skimming”—the brain is tricked into believing that it has fully understood what was read, but only some of the information is truly comprehended.

In addition, printed communications enable readers to have a better sense of place when they consume the content. It is far easier to visualize where you are in a physical book or on a printed worksheet than it is with the digital equivalents. With this sense of place from printed content, the human brain can create “mental maps” that help increase overall comprehension and retention of the information.

Marginalia—the act of annotating print—also supports active engagement when you read. Rather than just plowing through the text regardless of comprehension and understanding, annotating slows the reading process down. The reader is therefore better able to think about, unpack, and digest the information that is presented. Information that might have been otherwise missed (such as specific nuances or supplementary knowledge) is more likely to be picked up.

The Bottom Line

Print and digital technologies have their own unique benefits and drawbacks when it comes to education. The lockdown phase of the pandemic intensified the need for home learning, and it certainly proved that digital education is sometimes necessary to keep students learning. Ultimately, a global health crisis must take priority over in-person learning when lives may be at stake. As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, though, it is becoming clear that print excels in delivering in-depth understanding and comprehension. Moving forward, striking a balance between digital and print technologies will be crucial to an effective education process as more and more students transition back to full-time, on-site learning.

As a Research Associate for Keypoint Intelligence’s Content & Publishing Group, Mark Davis is responsible for producing BLI A4 Lab Test Reports, InfoCenter deliverables, and blogs for the company’s public site. He is a graduate of The University of Winchester and is currently working towards a Ph.D. in English Literature at The University of Westminster. Mark previously held marketing positions at an automotive agency working with major OEMs and in the education technology and dental insurance sectors.