Digital Devices Can Damage Learning

Mobile phones and laptops/tablets have become an integral part of our lives in general and are also part of our learning landscape. Whilst there are definitely some advantages to having this technology available to us, researchers have been exploring if there are significant disadvantages specific to learning associated with these devices and that is the subject of this blog.

One of the resources I have been using in the last year is The Learning Scientists, a group of cognitive scientists who are interested in education and learning research. They take the science of learning and then explain how it can be applied practically for both students and teachers. They do this through their blogs, downloadable resources and an excellent podcast. If you are interested in the science of learning, I’d thoroughly recommend checking them out.

In two of their recent podcasts, some research in to the use of electronic devices came up and I thought I might share the findings with you because they could impact on your behaviour at your next teaching session or conference.


smartphone-1894723_1920The first piece of research looked at whether mobile phones had a distracting effect on cognitive function. The study was fairly simple really. Subjects were sat at a table and asked to perform a Stroop Test (that irritating one where you have to say the colour of the word not the colour the word spells) in each of five different conditions.

  1. With no mobile phone on the table
  2. With their own mobile phone on the table receiving notifications
  3. With their own mobile phone on the table with notifications switched off
  4. With the experimenter’s mobile phone on the table receiving notifications
  5. With the experimenter’s mobile phone on the table with notifications switched off

Unsurprisingly, mobile phone notifications were distracting and reduced performance of this cognitive test. Interestingly, this was true whether the phone belonged to the subjects or the experimenter and was despite the fact that the subjects knew that no action needed to be taken when a notification came through. More surprising, perhaps, was the fact that the mere presence of a mobile phone reduced performance, even if it never received any notifications… again regardless of who the phone belonged to.

Does that mean anything to us? I think we probably (reluctantly) accept that our mobile phones buzzing or pinging are a distraction to us and this study helps evidence that but it also adds two other pieces of information. Firstly, the simple presence of the phone is enough of a distraction to have an impact on our cognition… it seems we’re just not capable of ‘ignoring it’… and secondly, other people’s phones distract us as well, regardless of whether they are receiving notifications. What we decide to do with this information is obviously a personal choice but given the impact our own phones can have on others, I guess it has implications for phone etiquette at group learning events.


I think we are all familiar with the scene above when teaching students but it is also a growing trend at medical conferences. Colleagues fire up their laptop, or maybe an iPad or a smartphone, and start typing notes as the presenter takes us through their presentation. The second piece of research looked at this use of laptops.

Researchers tested the learning of students who had either taken handwritten notes or notes on a (non internet enabled) laptop during a presentation and they discovered that those who had taken handwritten notes did better. When they looked at the notes that writing-933262_1920had been taken it appeared that those who typed tended to record more content from the lecture and this was often done verbatim. In contrast, handwritten notes had less content and tended to be a record of the students’ understanding of what was being taught. The hypothesis was that because writing is slower than typing, students had to record less and so they were ‘forced’ to try and understand and construct a summary before making a note… which helped learning.

Interestingly, in the second round of the study, when laptop users were informed about their behaviour and asked to try and record concepts rather than content from the lecture, they still tended to over record information and do less well than their pen wielding peers. In the final part of the research, the students were asked to look back over the notes they had taken, as a revision aid, before taking a test a week later. Once again, those who had taken handwritten notes outperformed their digital peers significantly, whether looking at factual data recall or the understanding of concepts.

As a paper note taker I’m obviously very comfortable with this research (confirmation bias is a wonderful thing) but I do wonder what it will mean for my colleagues who tend to type. There are clearly some advantages to digital note taking in so far as they are easier to file, edit, recall and share than pieces of paper. Perhaps the sweet spot between digital and analogue is in the note taking apps which allow us to use a screen stylus to write and create mind maps or infographics of our understanding of what we are learning. I think a number of us are grateful for the example set by @WhistlingDixie4 and her excellent, real time digital note taking at critical care conferences!


Two studies which I found interesting and which I hope might make you think next time you are in a learning environment.




P.S. Here are the links to the original podcasts by The Learning Scientists on these two subjects.

Attention, Learning and Memory (Mobile Phones)

Bite Sized Research on Using Laptops to Take Notes




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