That’s the title of an article in Fast Company today.  Here’s a snippet:

A recent University of Washington study interviewed 39 first-year graduate students in the university’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering, which participated in a pilot study of Amazon’s Kindle DX (a large-screen e-reader). By seven months into the study, fewer than 40% of the students did their schoolwork on the Kindle. The problem: the Kindle has poor note-taking support, doesn’t allow for easy skimming, and makes it difficult for students to look up references (in comparison with computers and textbooks). As a result, some of the students interviewed kept sheets of paper with their Kindle case to take notes, and other read near computers so that they could easily look up references.

There’s another, larger problem, according to the U of W:

The digital text also disrupted a technique called cognitive mapping, in which readers used physical cues such as the location on the page and the position in the book to go back and find a section of text or even to help retain and recall the information they had read.

Except for the cognitive mapping issue, these are all are technical problems that could all be fixed in future Kindle upgrades.

Thanks to @draccah for the link.  Anybody got any more info on “cognitive mapping”?  Sounds like an interesting topic.


  1. Don’t know much about the technical field of the science of cognitive mapping, but I’ve recently found this to be a problem for me as well. On one of my book review lists, we’re doing a chapter-by-chapter discussion of a book that I read on my ereader. I’m finding that I have no idea what page number or location number a certain event would be in, although I know roughly where it would be in a paper book… going back to find the specific event is virtually impossible on the ereader, but simple for me to just open the paper book to find.

    Which is another reason why ebooks have a lower value to me as a reader than paper books do.

  2. Cognitive mapping is very real. I almost always remember a passage I need to find later by where it was on the page. It’s why reading a physical book is like taking a sail along a memorable coastline while digital reading is like crossing featureless ocean.

    There are at least partial technological fixes. The breadcrumb trail at the bottom of Kindles gives a clue as to how far you are in a book. Chapter titles at the top and a chapter breadcrumb trail would help. Ebook might even mimic their physical counterparts by offering left-hand and right-hand page options with different formatting for each. They might also offer readers the ability to set up one or several formatting standards, so the pages would always break the same. One reader could use it as a memory aid, multiple readers in a book club or class could use it to create the digital equivalent of pages. No more going to Location 25738.

    Ebook designers have been getting it all wrong. Having software create the illusion of a page turning (a la iPad) has never made sense to me. Why would I want to duplicate that? But the cognitive mapping that a physical book provides is worth duplicating. That they’ve not done. Instead, all I’ve heard are geeky types gushing that I can now change the font type and size. Why? Readers have never wanted to do that, being quite willing to leave those choices to designers. Give readers what they want, which is books they can enjoy looking at and remember.

    It’d also help a lot if ebook formats would allow those doing layout to duplicate the richness of a printed book. Quotes, commentary versus text, varieties of text content, etc. need ways to distinguish them apart. About all ebooks now allow are crude: either excessive indention or bold/italic. Even the very first printed books were more flexible than that. I’ve thought of creating a digital edition of my Lord of the Rings chronology, Untanglng Tolkien, but groan when I try to imagine how ePub or Mobi would mutilate the complex formatting I used in the print original.

    My principle gripe with ebooks is that it’s almost impossible to create one that isn’t so typographically crude it looks ugly. And the equality of that ugliness is one reason why they stand out so little in our minds. If ebook formatting were more powerful (i.e. like PDF), it’d allow ebooks to be attractive in different ways, aiding memory and making reading more enjoyable.

  3. It’s why reading a physical book is like taking a sail along a memorable coastline while digital reading is like crossing featureless ocean.

    this. Because when I’m reading a paper book, I have the unconscious kinesthetic feedback as to where I am in the book at all times – but I never look down at the progress bar to see page numbers or location numbers in my ereaders.

  4. @becca: That just means you have to get used to looking at the progress bar. That’s not a fault of ebooks, but of how you are using them… as if they are paper. It’s also partially the fault of some reading devices, which try to treat ebooks as if they are paper; I agree with Michael that it makes little sense, and I say it should be abandoned ASAP, so ebook users can begin to learn the digital habits they will need in the future.

    Ebook devices have a ways to go before they are properly optimized for reference and educational uses. Those “optimizations” will not be paper emulation, and the longer users cling to paper emulation, the longer the process will take.

  5. Firstly this cognitive mapping is really a lot of bull. Times are changing people and we need to adapt to the new ways !

    Secondly: “Ereaders fail at education”. This is a load a load of bull that is dragged out on an almost weekly basis.
    “. . fewer than 40% of the students did their schoolwork on the Kindle” I simply do NOT accept that this is the measure of the success of eBooks or eReaders !

    Who decided that doing schoolwork or homework ON the eBook is the measure of success ? It seems to me that using eReaders to save on carrying around massive bags of paper books is a HUGE success irrespective of where the notes are taken or where the homework is done. Why does it have to be on the eReader and not on old fashioned paper pads ? Why is it a failure if it is not a 100% digital process ?

  6. @Steven: doesn’t that go counter to the whole idea that, in an ereader, you “fall” into the book same as you do a paper book? Note that I said there was an unconscious feedback as to rough approximation of the location in a paper book.

  7. Howard, cognitive mapping is *not* a lot of bull. That’s the way the human mind naturally works. It’s like having an image in your mind of where you put your keys down, so you don’t have to go hunting all over the house. ebooks may never be able to enable that exactly as print books do, but they can incorporate other features. I don’t know how the Kindle works because I don’t have one, but the desktop app allows you to highlight material, and to make notes. All those annotations are grouped together, so all you have to do is hit the bookmark icon and a pane will open showing you your notes and marks, and their exact locations. For books that have actual page numbers, it will include those. I read a lot of books with Calibre, but for books that I want to use as references, I use the Kindle app.

  8. Howard, no, cognitive mapping isn’t bull, even in this context. Since it’s a reality of how the human brain is wired, it isn’t going to go away or change just because the medium for reading has changed. Eventually, as the technology develops, the designers of ebook readers will have to build in more equivalents.

  9. Well, I am in my 60’s and don’t have a problem using my Kobo for all reading for my university course. Kobo’s don’t have notetaking, but if they did I would certainly use it. Perhaps people just need to try and keep up with modern technology? (Very tongue in cheek here!)
    But a page number and perhaps chapter heading in a display would be a good feature.

  10. @becca, about “falling into” a book: No, there’s no inconsistency here. Reading a book is more than just physically turning a page; page-flipping is a learned pattern that goes along with print, but that has nothing to do with the book itself… eventually you should relegate the action to your subconscious as you concentrate on the book.

    The same thing holds for, say, pushing a page-advance icon: After awhile, it is relegated to a subconscious act that does not interfere with your reading. The same would hold true for occasionally glancing at the progress bar to help fix your place: Do it often enough, and it will become second-nature… you’ll do it automatically, and the process won’t interfere with reading.

    Take note that if your digital reader continues to use paper-based prompts, like a page-turn “finger-swipe,” the brain might be distracted by the process of knowingly using print-based actions on a non-print device, which could hamper (or at least delay) the process of “falling into” the book. That’s why I say that the sooner devices develop their own, non-print-based controls, the sooner users will be able to concentrate on the book.

    The problem is, developers are using the wrong model to emulate. Digital devices shouldn’t be trying to emulate books… that’s like using print books that emulate stone tablets. Digital devices have a unique set of available tools that have already been well-developed in the form of the web browser, a model that most everyone already knows how to use to find content, to read, to follow links and sidenotes, to look up and search, and to keep track of where they are and where they’ve been. Add note-taking and highlighting to that already-formidable set of tools, and you’ve got an effective digital experience for students.

  11. Catana,
    Absolutely correct about using the highlighting & notes for references, and the college reports more often than not show the students not using the Search facility to look for “events” — they are just used to flipping to a certain part of the book.

    That search facility is huge, for me. The collection of annotations sorted by the order in which they appear and the links that are involved taking you directly to the pages? Even in the young, people want mainly what they’re used to. On the other hand, it’s more difficult for me to go back to paper often because I can’t do searches or make notes that stay with the book and not in scraps of paper that can fall off.

  12. No dispute that cognitive mapping is an essential development skill.

    However …

    A. The search function of the device makes it far more efficient to find a passage by simply remembering a keyword.

    B. Reading a book is not the only way to develop cognitive mapping skills.

    And regarding this article . . . when I was a college student I always had sheets of paper and 3×5 cards cards for note taking. And that was before Amazon even existed!

    My wife and I have had numerous discussions about technology and our children’s education. The reality is that learning to use these devices is as important to their development in the world we live in today as learning to read has become over the past several hundred years. I’m sure our ancestors, devoid of books, would be appalled that we need to have everything written for us – that we can’t memorize Homer’s Iliad as they once did.

  13. @John: Be fair–our ancestors didn’t have as many stories to remember as we have today. And a great deal of their knowledge was constantly reinforced by daily use. Our ancestors would quickly choke on the incredible amount of information moderns regularly handle, thanks to our ability to record them for recall as needed.

    And we moderns aren’t incapable of memorizing stories. Ask a teen about their favorite television series, and don’t be surprised if they can recite dialogue from seasons’ worth of episodes on demand… as I can from the original Star Trek series, even today. However, I can also access many more than the 50+ Trek episodes, thanks to modern technology.

    I agree that learning to use digital devices is as important as learning to read. But it’s not just because they happen to exist as tools today; it’s because of the incredible wealth of information that will be in your hands if you master digital devices.