Does (Screen) Size Matter?

If you extrapolate several studies that have been done about paper versus screens, there’s a real gap in learning from a screen— especially a small one.

We have moved rapidly into a world of mobile everything in e-learning. Much of the media in our lives is delivered on devices that fit into the palm of our hand. We call and read e-mail on our phones, we communicate with words (texting), and we watch streaming video-all on our phones and tablets.

Unless you’ve just returned from an involuntary stay on a desert island, training designers and developers know much of the training they deliver is via responsive Websites that stream video to whatever device the learner is looking at. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a desktop computer or an iPhone with the old small screen, an iPhone 6S Plus or a Samsung, LG, or Windows phone. Whatever it is, the same video shows everywhere. However, this begs the question: Does video on a tiny screen get viewed and understood in the same way as video on a large screen? Do viewers comprehend and retain the same amount from a small screen as a big screen? It depends on whom you ask. But if you extrapolate several studies that have been done about paper versus screens, there’s a real gap in learning from a screen, especially a small screen. Words on a screen don’t necessarily translate to video, but they both are visual, and the neuroscience of both start in the visual cortex.

Lack of Research

Writing hasn’t been around for all that long in the course human evolution… only about 6,000 years. The written word doesn’t come naturally to humans. As children learn to read, they have to knit together a few different regions in their brains-those that control language, vision, and motor skills. Video has no such issues. Video is inherent in the two regions in our brains that now are considered to be in the same place: our visual and auditory cortexes. Of course, language is contained in this since we usually have to understand what we’re hearing (the auditory part). If you think of the people who told visual stories without words (Buster Keaton comes to m in d –, we begin to understand that there’s much more to video than meets the eye (pun intended) or ear.

“Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper.” This statement from The Scientific American article, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age” ( is one of a long series of articles reviewed for this article. None of the articles and papers researched comprehension and screen size specifically; only the concept that reading on a screen makes a difference is analyzed. There’s a doctoral dissertation about screen size and comprehension, but it only looks at the physical size of words, how easy it is to scroll and select, etc., but not video comprehension.

Human vision has been the reason our species has survived since we were on the savannah. Early humans were hunters. Humans were able to kill animals many times our size by using our vision combined with hearing, among some other things such as making tools. However, it did start with hearing and vision. Fight or flight. Eat or be eaten.

Less Is More for Small Screens

Does (screen) size matter? The smaller the screen, the less information a viewer can discern quickly. This much we can derive from the research. I believe it does matter when viewing video, but to a lesser extent than reading. If your e-learning video has dense visual and audio information and interactivity, perhaps it will overwhelm learners with just too small an area to view what it is they need to learn. There simply hasn’t been enough research done yet to determine the correlation among screen size, comprehension, and retention of information that’s delivered on a large screen versus a small screen. We need real evidence of how we inculcate the information our learners need with all the various screen sizes in the market today.

Steve Haskin is a video creator, writer, and teacher on the role of visual media in learning. He loves thinking about the dimensions of media in e-learning.