How Engaged Time Affects Reading Comprehension

We recently got an interesting question from a client about the connection between engaged time and understanding in news articles. A priori, one may think that there should be a strong correlation–someone quickly skimming through an article should not be expected to retain as much as someone carefully reading–but there are some reasons this might not be the case.

Journalists are taught to get to the point quickly in their news articles, using an inverted pyramid style. One of the presumed benefits is to allow readers to exit the story at any point they like and still retain the important information from the story. One of the most common phrases a young journalist hears is often “don’t bury the lede” for this very reason. Perhaps, then, it might be that a reader gleans most of his/her understanding from a story from the first seconds of reading, and the marginal value of spending more time reading the rest of the story is relatively small. We decided to put the assertion to the test.

First, let’s you and I conduct an informal experiment right now. I’m going to present you with a few dense bullet points of the findings of the study, and I’d like you to decide for yourself whether you feel like you have anything to gain from reading further.

  • We conducted a survey of over 1000 people to investigate the association between how long a reader is engaged reading a news article and what s/he takes away from it.
  • We confirmed that there is a strong association between fact recall and engaged time.
  • Readers engaged for more than a minute were almost twice as likely to recall specific facts about the article as readers who spent less than 15 seconds. This was true even when the fact was found in the first lines of the article.
  • Further, we found evidence that readers who spend more time engaged are more likely to agree with the author’s conclusions.

Now that you’ve gotten the facts, you can feel free to leave this blog post and spend your valuable time elsewhere, but if you’ll indulge me, I think you’ll find that your understanding may be heightened if you let me go into a little more detail about the experiment and the results.

Experimental Design

In order to test the relationship between reading comprehension and engagement, we carefully considered how best to induce paid participants to act like internet users reading news articles. We’ve previously established that it’s not common for a reader to read all the way through an article. In a typical article, the most likely (modal) behavior for a reader is to leave after only about 15 seconds. The most simple survey design would be to instruct readers to read through an article however they like and then ask questions about it afterwards.  The problem with structuring an experiment like this is that a paid participant just doesn’t act like a typical internet user. We tried this with a quick pilot study. The average reading time for the article we selected was an order of magnitude higher than what you might expect for a typical reader.

It struck me that one important consideration that this design was obviously lacking was an element of choice. When a reader visits your site, s/he is making a choice to spend valuable time reading your content instead of reading a different article, looking at funny cat pictures, or spending time off of the internet entirely. In the naive design, we’d effectively purchased time from people to take our survey, so they felt compelled to “do a good job” and carefully read through the article, even though that’s not what we wanted them to do at all.

Once we settled on a design that included elements of choice, we got more sensible results. We put together a simple website that showed one of eight different news articles with a button to flip from one to to the next. The participants were instructed to read as much or as little of each article as they liked. After five minutes, the site would redirect users to a survey page that asked five questions about one of the articles. The survey had five multiple choice questions about one particular opinion article about Iranian air strikes:

  1. A detail question asking about a fact from the first paragraph of the article.
  2. A detail question about a fact from near the end of the article.
  3. An “attention check” designed to weed out respondents who were not reading the questions.
  4. A conceptual question asking for a summary of the author’s thesis
  5. An opinion question relating to the author’s message.

We asked 1,000 paid participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to take our survey. Of these, we eliminated about 10% for various reasons (e.g., failing the attention check question, multiple submissions from the same device, not clicking through to the article we asked questions about). When we look at an article, our engagement metrics look reasonable:


The graph above shows a peak engagement of about 20 seconds, gradually tapering off as time increases. This reassures us that we are sampling a population that models internet viewership reasonably well.

We can also intuitively understand the pattern of responses.


The majority of readers could correctly identify a detail from the beginning of the article and summarize the author’s thesis, but fewer were able to answer a question about a detail near the end of the article. This can be explained by the fact that relatively few people read through the article. In truth, the 37% that answered the question correctly is likely as high as it is only because you could expect 25% correct from random chance.

Fact Recall by Engaged Time

Looking deeper, we find a strong association between fact recall and engaged time. Readers spending more than a minute were almost twice as likely to recall specific facts about the article as readers who spend less than 15 seconds (approximately the top and bottom quartile of the engaged time of the responses).

Let’s look specifically at conceptual understanding. Roughly 40% of participants engaged for less than 15 seconds correctly assessed the message of the article, compared to more than 80% of those engaged for more than a minute. We’ve plotted recall against engagement below, with its associated 95% confidence interval. The slope of the logistic regression tells us that for every 15 seconds of increased engagement we can expect to see about a 30% increase in the odds of correctly answering the question correctly.


The complete results are summarized in the following table. In particular, for each of the questions, we see a positive association between recall and engaged time, even when the relevant information was found at the very beginning of the article.

Respondents Answering Correctly by Engaged Time
Question Overall < 15 seconds >1 minute Increase in Odds Per 15 Second Increase in Engaged Time
Conceptual Understanding 62% 42% 81% 32%
Detail from Beginning of Article 63% 39% 81% 31%
Detail from End of Article 37% 27% 44% 8%

A matter of opinion

The opinion question was adapted from a June 2014 CBS News/New York Times Poll: “Do you favor or oppose the United States working with Iran in order to try and resolve the situation in Iraq?” In the original poll, 53% were in favor, 39% opposed, and 8% were unsure. The first observation about the results is that respondents were much less likely to express an opinion, but given the survey population this is not surprising. The second observation is that readers of this article, which supported this position, were relatively more likely to agree with the author’s position. In particular, the portion of responses agreeing with the author varied significantly between people who engaged with the article for more than a minute and those who engaged for less than 15 seconds:


I caution that the experiment does not show causation. It’s probably the case, for instance, that readers who more strongly agree with the author are more likely to be more engaged with the article. However, it is at least plausible that reading the article helped impact the opinion of the readers (though we would have to do more tests to find out how much this might be the case in general).

It’s worth explicitly noting that we only effectively ran this experiment for one particular article. Whereas we think the questions we’ve raised and attempted to answer are important, and that the results we’ve shown are useful directional indications, it’s clear that the magnitude of the results will depend on the questions asked and the article itself.

Win Hearts and Minds

We’ve seen before that engaged time affects things like brand recall for advertisements, so the result that engaged time affects reading comprehension is not altogether surprising. What is interesting is the extent to which this is borne out in the results.  This just adds to the growing body of evidence that capturing the attention of your readers gives you the opportunity to win both their hearts and their minds.

For writers, I suppose this conclusion is both a blessing and a curse. Yes, you’re still going to have to spend time polishing the second halves of your articles; but by focusing on keeping your readers engaged, they will ultimately take away more from what you’re saying. And isn’t that the point of effective journalism?

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