Print v. eTextbooks: Which does UD prefer?

Hear what researchers, professors and students say when it comes to a preference for print or eTextbooks. Photo courtesy of Bartsche.

Maddy Bartsche | Arts & Entertainment Editor

A Direct Textbook survey of more than 400 current college students found that six out of ten prefer print to eTextbooks. Print textbooks preference has declined 10% since 2015 when 72% of students favored print textbooks. Yet the increase in students who prefer eTextbooks increased by just 2% while the percentage of students with no preference increased by almost 8%.

Overall the stats are as follows:

  • 62% of students prefer print textbooks to eTextbooks 
  • 29% prefer eTextbooks 
  • 9% have no preference

Students who prefer print textbooks cite the following reasons:

  • Print textbooks are easier to read (78%) 
  • Difficulty concentrating on eTextbooks (63%) 
  • The ability to physically highlight (61%) 
  • Internet access is not required (51%) 
  • eTextbooks are difficult to navigate and bookmark (50%) 
  • eTextbooks make students’ eyes hurt (44%) 
  • The ability to write on pages (35%) 
  • The ability to resell print textbooks (31%) 
  • They end up printing eTextbook pages anyway (25%)

Students who prefer eTextbooks over print textbooks cite the following reasons:

  • Search features (88%) 
  • eTextbooks are environmentally friendly (70%) 
  • eTextbooks are cheaper (69%) 
  • The ability to adjust font size and brightness (66%) 
  • eTextbooks are lighter (57%) 
  • eTextbooks do not need returned (56%) 
  • Text to audio features (53%) 
  • The ability to use apps with eTextbooks (32%)

Insights from students who have no preference include:

  • 58% say print textbooks are easier to read and annotate 
  • 47% say print textbooks are easier to learn from 
  • 69% say print textbooks are easier to find at bookstores 
  • 75% say eTextbooks are cheaper 
  • 53% say they prefer to carry eTextbooks on campus

Complete survey results can be found at

What are textbook sales like at UD? 

Unsurprisingly COVID has had an impact on textbook sales at UD. 

Julie Banks, director of retail services, said, “Going back to the fall of 2019, prior to Covid, students primarily purchased printed textbooks (79%).  e-Books and courseware were 21% of the purchases. In the fall of 2020, digital purchases grew to 48%. This was precipitated mostly by changes in course modalities related to Covid to ensure students received access to course materials in a timely manner. With many remote courses, the usage of digital escalated and was quickly adopted by UD students.”

Banks added, “This fall, we have seen digital textbooks sales remain strong (close to 50% of all textbooks sold).  We anticipate this number will continue to grow.  Students have become more comfortable with accessing materials both through Isidore and via Bookshelf.”

Banks explained that UD participates in a Student Watch survey through OnCampus Research®, the research arm of the National Association of College Stores which monitors and explores trends in course content among college students and faculty in higher education and collegiate market retail. This surgery aims to evaluate student attitudes and behaviors toward their course materials. The 2021 study was conducted across 39 two- and four-year campuses in the United States and Canada. The study fielded from February through March of 2021 and received around 11,800 responses. 

“This comprehensive report evaluated student acquisition behaviors, academic spending trends, student preference, changes students experienced during the pandemic and overall trends in the course material space. The results of the study are consistent with what we have seen on campus, an increased use of digital materials.”

More than half of students (58%) reported using digital materials. Only 6% reported using digital materials less compared to last year. 

Banks also spoke about the type of textbooks ordered, “The makeup of what kind of books students acquired is another area that saw sizable shakeup in 2021.”

“Typically used books are the most common unit acquired, followed by new print materials, with digital trailing quite a bit further behind. In 2021, all three unit types were within a few percentage points of one another. In order of frequency of units acquired, new print was the unit acquired most (32%), followed by used print (31%) and finally digital (29%).”

The UD Bookstore expects the digital book usage and participation in Complete Digital Access to continue to grow on campus. When given the choice, students appear to be picking eTextbooks over print. 

Lower cost could be one reason students are leaning towards digital textbooks. 

Banks said, “UD’s spending on physical textbooks has decreased significantly over the last decade.  Through the adoption of a strong rental program and Complete Digital Access, UD students have collectively saved millions of dollars on course materials.”

What do UD professors and students prefer? 

UD professors’ preference on print or eTextbooks varies.

Professor Klosterman, lab coordinator from the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences, says, “I much prefer our online textbook system for our lectures. Students often don’t want to just read pages of text but prefer to read as needed as they complete assignments.”

“In our textbook system, the related sections of the ebook are tabbed in the online assignments so they can click back to the section they need while working on a question. I think the more you can make a textbook into an active learning tool, the more students will appreciate its usefulness.”

Klosterman, while noting that online material was cheaper for students and easier to update over the semester, also said that online textbooks have the downside of students having their laptops out in class, a possible distraction. 

Xiaoli Li, assistant professor of professional and technical writing and writing for the web, said, “Personally, I prefer a print textbook for more social-cultural factors. We (born before 1985) are ‘digital immigrants’ and we have had the habit of reading printed textbooks. It is easier for me to flip the pages and I can be more focused on what I am reading while I can easily get lost in the web space. In addition, staring at the screen for a longer period of time will cause eye strain for us more often.”

It appears Li is not alone in her preference for print textbooks. 

Senior sociology major Rachel Veneman reports, “I prefer physical textbooks over online textbooks because I like to have it tangibly in front of me. I find it easier to refer back to certain chapters or pages when I can flip through the pages physically.”

Senior biology major Bradley Retherford finds that print textbooks align better with his study style. 

“I make flash cards on my computer and it’s way easier to just have that and a physical textbook open side by side.” 

Some may wonder if there will be a day when colleges and universities drop textbooks altogether in favor of eBooks. 

In response to this question, Banks said, “There are many disciplines that benefit from the use of courseware and eBooks. Technology can be very helpful both inside and outside the classroom.  Students in math, science and engineering classes appreciate digital access in place of heavy books. But not all courses benefit from the use of eBooks and many students and faculty will continue to prefer a print copy of a textbook for certain classes.”

“Additionally, the faculty members are responsible for choosing the materials for their courses. So, the University will not make a sweeping decision to drop textbooks from course materials.”

Digital course materials have helped to make textbooks more accessible and affordable to many students, but students learn and study in different ways and flexible learning resources will continue to be needed.

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