Digital Devices in the Classroom Can Hinder Long-Term Retention

Learning Research

Digital Devices in the Classroom Can Hinder Long-Term Retention

By Tina Nazerian     Aug 17, 2018

Digital Devices in the Classroom Can Hinder Long-Term Retention

The question of whether or not to allow students to use smartphones, laptops and other technology in the classroom has been long-debated, and at times, heated.

And just as a new school year is set to begin, a new study raises fresh concerns about potential downsides of multitasking during class.

The study, published in the journal Educational Psychology, found that when students divide attention between electronic devices and a classroom lecture, they still followed the lecture in the moment, but that long-term retention was reduced, resulting in lower grades on unit and final exams.

Arnold Glass, a researcher and professor at Rutgers University’s psychology department, ran the study with graduate student Mengxue Kang. He tells EdSurge that it’s fine for a student to use a digital device to take notes. The problem arises when the student starts dividing his attention between taking notes and other tasks, such as texting or watching a video. He adds that many students think using digital devices doesn’t have an effect on them, because their immediate comprehension doesn’t suffer.

“If you ask the a question right then, they’ll get it right,” he says. “Therefore, they’ll feel comfortable that they’re getting it all. However, a week later, they don’t remember it because that’s the effect of dividing attention.”

In the study, students in two sections of a college course were instructed to use digital devices in only half the lectures. The students answered 126 multiple-choice questions in class on materials that were just presented. They also took periodic tests and a final exam.

“Exam performance,” the researchers write, was “poorer for material taught in classes that permitted electronic device use both for students who did and did not direct attention to an electronic device for a non-academic purpose during those classes.”

Glass says that if a student in a class is dividing her attention by viewing, say, a game or a movie, she can end up distracting students nearby who aren’t doing that.

“They’re affecting the whole quality of the classroom,” Glass says. “So this is more than a personal choice. This is a social choice which has implications beyond themselves, which is all the more reason why there should be general rules I think in the classroom so that people who bother to come to class can get the most out of it that they can.”

Glass believes that there are appropriate uses for digital devices, explaining that he uses them during demonstrations and for pop quizzes, but those uses are “all classroom-related.” Now that he’s finished the experiment, Glass doesn’t let his own students use electronic devices for what he deems non-class related matters. For one, he doesn’t allow his students to take notes on digital devices.

Glass is not the only one changing behavior based on the findings. Oliver Lovell, a learning specialist and head of senior mathematics at a secondary school in Australia, writes in an email interview that he previously gave his students a warning before confiscating their phone in class. But the day after he read Glass and Kang’s paper, he told his students about the findings, and announced that he’d immediately take any phone he saw that students had out without permission until the end of the day.

“I also emphasised to them the difference in the study between short and long term outcomes, thus demonstrating that even if they feel like their learning isn't being compromised today, they can't anticipate the long-run effects.”

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