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Interview with Lauren Singer Trakhman, Ph.D., Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park

About Lauren Singer Trakhman, Ph.D.

Dr. Lauren Trakhman is an Assistant Clinical Professor and Director of Outreach for the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology within the College of Education at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP). In her role as Director of Outreach, she serves as Director of UMCP’s Off-Campus Master of Education in Human Development (MCHD) program.

Dr. Trakhman’s research focuses on the nature, context, and processes underlying reading comprehension. Her current work examines the effect of medium (i.e., print or digital) on comprehension performance and calibration accuracy. Her work has been referenced by global news outlets, such as CNN, WIRED, The Economist, and The Huffington Post, and her most recent publications include “Comprehension and Calibration of Print and Digital Texts: What Educators Need to Know” (Impact: Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching; 2019), and “Profiling Reading in Print and Digital Mediums” (Learning and Instruction; 2018).

Dr. Trakhman received Bachelor of Science degrees in Special Education and Educational Psychology from the Schreyer Honors College at The Pennsylvania State University. She then studied under Dr. Patricia Alexander and earned a PhD in Human Development and Quantitative Methodology with a specialization in Educational Psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Interview Questions

[] You received your PhD in Educational Psychology at the University of Maryland, where you were part of the Disciplined Reading and Learning Research Laboratory (DRLRL). What can you tell us about your work with the DRLRL, your research into reading comprehension in digital texts, and the methodologies employed to measure the impact of digital texts on reading comprehension?

[Dr. Trakhman] One of my majors in college was Special Education. During my student teaching experience, I was placed in a general education kindergarten classroom. One day, we were teaching the students to read using a whiteboard, as is done in many classrooms. Then, it was time for the students to practice reading independently. Instead of each student picking out a book, they each grabbed an iPad. I was instantly drawn to watching how the students were “reading,” because it looked to me as if they were navigating the texts differently than they would if it were a printed book. I asked the teacher what the research said about reading digitally versus in print and she said she didn’t know. I did my own research and found out that, at that point, we didn’t know much about the effect of digital devices on reading comprehension and learning in general. From there, I set out for my PhD to learn how to examine the effect of medium on reading in print and digitally.

While in the DRLRL, my research focused on trying to better understand what effect medium (i.e., print or digital) has on reading comprehension and calibration (i.e., how closely aligned one’s judgment of performance is to their actual performance). Our first study (Reading Across Mediums: Effects of Reading Digital and Print Texts on Comprehension and Calibration”), which I coauthored with Dr. Patricia Alexander and which was published in The Journal of Experimental Education in 2017, looked at two types of texts: newspapers and a book passage. The study asked questions on three levels: main idea, key points, and other relevant information. We found that comprehension was better in print for total comprehension and individual questions – except for the main point, where medium had no effect. Students judged their performance more closely after reading in print – they thought their performance was better in digital when it actually wasn’t.

While this empirical study was being conducted, we were also working on a literature review, which examined research on reading in print and digitally over the previous 10 years. That review, “Reading on Paper and Digitally: What the Past Decades of Empirical Research Reveal,” was also published in 2017, in Review of Educational Research.

Our next empirical study was created as a consequence of the findings from the previous two studies. In this research, Dr. Alexander, Dr. Lisa Berkowitz, and I looked at reading in print and digitally, but now included a measure of processing time to see if there were any differences in how long students spend with a text when reading it in a different medium. This study, “The Effects of Processing Time on Comprehension and Calibration in Print and Digital Mediums,” was published in 2017 by the Journal of Experimental Education, and revealed that, once again, comprehension and calibration were better when reading in print. In addition, we found that participants read more quickly when reading digitally, which was the hypothesis.

Now that we were finding differences in reading time due to medium, we wanted to chip away at why participants were reading more rapidly in the digital medium. To do this, our next study used Camtasia Screen Record software to record movement on the computer screens while participants were prompted to “follow along” with a mouse as they read, just as a child would use their finger to follow along while reading. When reading in print, the participants wore a GoPro camera on their heads and were given a textbook with laminated pages and a thin marker. They were again instructed to follow along as they read so that we could see what behaviors emerged when reading. This study (“Profiling Reading in Print and Digital Mediums”) found similar trends in comprehension and calibration, and also revealed that participants were re-reading text less frequently when reading digitally.

My most recent work, which has not yet been published, uses a similar set of experimental conditions, but uses textbook passages that contain both text and graphics. Further, I introduced an intervention on digital reading skills in which participants are told about research findings on reading in print versus digitally. After the intervention, their digital reading skills were tested again.

[] At this point in your ongoing research, what advice would you offer to educators and students regarding the use of digital versus printed texts, and are their particular digital devices that are better for comprehension than others?

[Dr. Trakhman] There are three primary points I would stress:

  1. Task matters: Consider why you are reading. If it is just for the main idea, today’s news headlines, etc., reading digitally is fine.
  2. Slow down: Our research shows that participants read much more quickly in the digital medium. Keep this in mind and try to slow down your pace with digital texts.
  3. Check your comprehension as you go: When reading digitally, participants tend to think they comprehend more than they do. With this in mind, build in comprehension checks at the end of each paragraph or page to make sure that you understand and remember what you read.

For educators and teachers, I would also suggest considering the task. With assignments that just require a gist of understanding, digital is fine. Otherwise, I would suggest print. Teachers could also work on strategies for reading texts in the digital medium, such as encouraging students to slow down and checking for comprehension more often.

As for the device itself, we haven’t found vast differences across devices. Of course, I would suggest minimizing distractions by setting the device to “do not disturb.”

[] In your role as Director of the Off-Campus Master of Education in Human Development (MCHD) program at UMD, what consideration have you given to the use of various types of learning technologies, including online learning platforms that may or not incorporate digital text readings?

[Dr. Trakhman] Some of the courses in the MCHD program are offered online and some are hybrid where the class meets online sometimes and in-person other times. This decision is based on weighing the affordances and consequences of delivering instruction digitally. For instance, although there can be a stigma surrounding online courses, especially when the class involves group discussions, I find that students may speak more openly in an online meeting than when in a face to face conversation in the classroom. The beauty of having the opportunity to use technology to our advantage is knowing the right time, place, and topics for moving the classroom online.

[] Are you aware of any advances in digital technologies, human-computer interfaces, and/or educational psychology and pedagogy that may lead to more effective digital texts and improve digital reading comprehension outcomes?

[Dr. Trakhman] I think there are a few advancements that can be made to improve digital reading comprehension outcomes. I would define them as stemming from two areas: changes to the technology, and changes to the way we use the technology based on research.

In terms of changes to technology, I have faith that digital devices will improve and grow in order to meet the demands of reading. For example, look at the Kindle. Since its development, it has changed to be more and more “paper” like. Although the Kindle Paperwhite still has its negatives in terms of using it for reading digitally, it is leaps and bounds ahead of the first edition Kindle in terms of being set up in a way to facilitate reading comprehension. Specifically, there is less of a bold backlight, which research has shown can take up precious working memory space. I think as time and technology advance, so will the devices and their ability to facilitate better reading conditions.

In regard to changes to the way we use technology, I believe that researchers are finding out more about why a difference occurs in comprehension and calibration when reading digitally each and every day. As we continue to unearth these differences, we then can use the results to make changes to the ways we teach reading strategies when using a digital device. In my doctoral dissertation, as I noted earlier, I introduced a simple intervention, which taught college-age participants about the research on reading across mediums. Within this intervention, participants learned about how they normally read more quickly in the digital medium and re-read sections less frequently. After this 30-minute intervention, digital reading scores vastly improved for most participants. While this is just the first step and not a definitive finding on its own, this is one piece of evidence that we can and should be teaching digital reading strategies explicitly.

Finally, I think that the research on reading across mediums can not only influence the ways we use technology, but also can help to advance the technology itself. As researchers continue to discover why differences occur when reading from a digital device, this research can and should inform the development of new digital reading devices.