School web portals, Notability, Google classroom, Quizlet, IXL… Education has now moved online. There is concern that screens in education are affecting children’s acquisition and understanding of knowledge, in addition to their physical and mental health. As parents, we must take a critical look at the research, and make informed decisions to keep our kids current but safe.
There are many ways that technology interferes with learning. The most common is digital distraction, which can lead to information overload. Consider the last time you tried to have a conversation with someone while you were typing an email, scrolling your social media feed, or helping your child with her online science homework. How did the conversation go? Do you feel confident in how you answered questions? Do you remember the details? We like to think we can multitask but in reality, most of us are pretty bad at it. And kids, whose brains are far less developed than ours, are worse.
What was that?
Your working memory, the part of your brain that holds information while you work through a task, has a specific capacity, similar to a glass. Information, be it a math computation, vocab definition or text message, is like water. When we attempt to hold too much information in that glass, our working memory literally overflows, and our capacity to process the information and store it in long-term memory fails. And it doesn’t take much. Research shows that our working memory can only hold 3-4 pieces of information at a time.
To add another dimension to this conundrum, evolutionarily, our brains are not designed to focus on one task at a time. This “novelty bias,” which once saved us from getting mauled by bears, is the reason your teen can’t resist looking at his phone while you’re talking about SATs. So we are easily distracted, tempted to multitask, and meanwhile, we’re terrible at it.
It’s not surprising that studies show multitasking adversely affects learning, and distracted learning is related to lower test scores and lower grades, regardless of intellectual ability. For more information on these studies, visit Turning Life On - Learning and Education.
All is not lost!
We can use this information to help our students study more efficiently. First, explain to them how their brains work, mauling bears and all. Kids are (usually) interested in this stuff. Share studies with them. If they’re still not convinced, have them personally test the theories. Send them texts of silly cat gifs while they attempt to memorize the theory of evolution.
What should we do?
Then, ask them how they can use this information to study more efficiently. We want to study smarter not longer. Some ideas include silencing the phone and storing it in a different room. If this creates anxiety, suggest students set a timer for how long they will study before taking a break to check messages AND for how long they’ll check messages before returning to studying, so they don’t get sucked in. Whenever possible, close all apps and turn off notifications. Responding to friends is far more interesting than algebra. Our goal is to avoid distractions.
Mindfulness can be employed to make a conscious decision to focus on one assignment at a time while we keep others out of sight. We use different parts of our brains to complete different tasks, so studying this way preserves mental resources. For longer assignments, try focusing for 20 minute chunks of time, with a 5-minute, tech-free breather in between. Particularly for younger students, print assignments and complete them offline to avoid distraction caused by toggling between screens. Research also shows that reading analog is more effective for comprehension than reading digitally. Analog texts are also easier for students to highlight and annotate for further understanding and memory formation. For more suggestions, visit Turning Life On.
What’s in it for our students?
Finally, remind students what’s in it for them. They are far more likely to invest in a new strategy if it helps them achieve their goals, both short- and long-term. So ask questions to uncover what’s important to them. Do they want to spend less time studying and more time hanging out with or texting friends? Do they want to spend time practicing a sport or instrument to make a team or ensemble? Are they committed to improving their GPA for their college admissions application? Is impressing their teachers and you important to them? Because it’s difficult to understand and remember any new information while simultaneously Snapping and scrolling Insta, focused-studying and learning can help students improve grades and spend less time on schoolwork. Study now, watch YouTube later. It’s a win-win.