Smartphone Learning: When students should use it, and when to avoid it!

Students have immediate access to their work on a smartphone. According to Pew research, 85% of Americans own a smartphone, with that large number increasing to 96% for adults ages 18-29. College students universally own smartphones. Kara Sage in her research on college student use and perception of online work, found that 60% were using their phones for coursework (Sage et al., 2021). Just because a student can complete coursework on their phones, should they?  

With the pandemic leading to permanent changes in remote work and an increase in online learning, it is important to let Cognitive Psychology inform best practices in smartphone learning.  

Using our phone is often about access and availability. It takes time and workspace to open a laptop and nothing is more portable than our phones. The first generation of smartphones, over a decade ago, allowed us to “offload” a ton of information so that it no longer had to be written down or remembered. Early adopters saved time by using their phones to note appointments, store numbers, and find out the location of the nearest coffee shop. Today phones are used most often to watch social media content. Students might agree that their phones suck up rather than save time! surveyed 1,000 participants over 18 and found they checked their phone an average of 344 time a day and would be on track to spend 44 days in 2022 on a phone!

Smartphones of today though can be a necessary part of learning. Here are some best practices and guidance for when to use it and when to avoid it!

First, ask yourself…do I have time to pay attention to the learning task on my phone?

Don’t mistake easy access to a task for the mental energy to focus on it. Our attention is often not at a place where we can focus for several minutes. Just because you can access a quiz on your phone doesn’t mean you are in a quiet, distraction-free place to complete it. Are you able to settle in and listen to a course lecture or read a chapter? Often, we have notifications constantly fighting for our attention on our phone. If a student doesn’t silence these or turn them off all-together it may be difficult, or even impossible, to learn anything.

Second, ask yourself…is the learning task easier for me to complete on my phone?

Researchers like Golebiowski et al. (2020) found that reading for about one hour on a phone made users’ eyes feel strained, dry, and uncomfortable. After a lot of phone reading, users also reported increased tiredness which can occur from the blue light of a phone. If a laptop or book is accessible, why not reach for these to complete a reading assignment? You can save the phone time for less important tasks.

Third, ask yourself…are there any direct benefits for using my phone to learn?

Noting a quick reminder on your phone is helpful; however, researchers have learned that a smartphone may impair your ability to remember. It may not be helpful to take notes while learning on your phone. Neuroscientists found when people wrote down personal calendar notes using either paper, their laptop, or a smartphone, those who used paper remembered the most information.

Paper is helpful because it provides an additional detail for remembering. The action of writing on paper and even the location of the information on paper serves as a memory cue. The more details we have initially stored when we learn, the better the chance of being able to retrieve or remember this information later is. The phone might be faster, but it doesn’t provide the benefit you may get from writing in a favorite notebook and being able to “see” the information later on. Neuroscientists found that study participants who used paper had more brain activity in areas associated with language, imagery, and memory.

Additional research on smartphone learning discovered that a phone can also get in the way of understanding text (Honma et al. 2022). Researchers measuring brain function, discovered that you use more effort in the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain required for problem-solving and decision-making and other complex thinking) while reading on a phone. Although not completely understood, yet, a phone seems to take away some of our ability to focus on the reading only.

Use this cheat list to decide when to ditch the smartphone when learning:


  • Learning requires a lot of focus
  • You are required to read complex information
  • You are being asked to read for a long time
  • Your eyes are tired
  • You feel like you cannot concentrate


  • Reading
  • Taking quizzes or exams that require writing
  • Listening to a lecture and taking notes


  • Requires quick access
  • Calls for basic internet searches


  • Answering a quick survey or poll
  • Listening to a short lecture
  • Watching a short video


Golebiowski, B. et al. (2020). Smartphone use and effects on tear file, blinking and binocular vision. Curr. Eye Res, 45 (4), 428–434.

Honma, M., Masaoka, Y., Iizuka, N. et al. (2022). Reading on a smartphone affects sigh generation, brain activity, and comprehension. Scientific Reports, 12,

Pew Research Center. (2021, April 7). Mobile fact sheet.

Sage, K., Jackson, S., Fox, E. et al. (2021). The virtual COVID-19 classroom: surveying outcomes, individual differences, and technology use in college students. Smart Learn, 8 (27).

Umejima, K. et al. (2021). Paper notebooks vs. mobile devices: Brian activation differences during memory retrieval. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 19,

Wheelwright, T. (2019, April 10). 2022 Cell phone usage statistics: How obsessed are we?

No more all-nighters: Students prefer cramming to learn but at what cost?

Any learner can imagine when a lack of time, planning, or the just “life got in the way” led to pulling an all-nighter. Visit a college dorm or the campus library and you will encounter students forsaking sleep to study. Under the hum of fluorescent lights you will find over caffeinated and sleep-deprived students with blood shot eyes cramming the night before an exam. And can you blame them?

I’ve taught hundreds of students who fail to plan out their learning over-time. A recent study of millennial college students found they had hap hazard study habits which included poor planning and cramming. If these less than stellar learning habits weren’t bad enough, the students lacked self-awareness about their studying. They actually believed they put enough time into studying to succeed, pointing to the normalization of cramming in college learning. In my Psychology courses, one of the first lessons I teach students includes essentials of how to learn. Students self-report that go-to strategies for learning include reading and re-reading their textbooks and/or notes and highlighting potentially important information. See Dunlosky et al., 2013 for research on the most commonly used studying techniques and check out the table below.

Do you see any strategies that you use?

Distributed practice, or breaking study sessions into smaller time-periods in the weeks or days leading up to an exam is the best tool for long-term learning. Notice I said weeks or days? Again, most of us fall short of this style of planning but I’m here to convince you that poor learning is perhaps secondary to the real damage done from all-nighters.

The real cost is losing sleep. College students are some of the most sleep deprived groups. This HuffPost video explains that only 11% of college students get an adequate amount of sleep. College students love to talk and think about sleep; when was the last time you thought about taking a mid-day nap? Sleep is your super power and can be the key to health, not to mention college and life success. Sleeping between 7 and 8 hours each night and going to bed and waking at the same time are among the best strategies. It is easier said than done. Like any behavioral change, I’m looking at you “land of eat better and exercise more,” changing sleep patterns is hard work. It often requires implementing related strategies to bring about the sleep change needed.

Here is just a short list:

Stay on schedule
Keep bedroom cool
Maintain nightly rituals like a hot shower
Do not nap after 3:00 pm
Cut back on caffeine
Only associate the bed with sleep
No device use at least 1 hour before sleep

That is a pretty hefty list so don’t try to change all of your sleep habits at once. Pick one or two that are easier for you to control. Maybe your bed has to double as a study space or you work a job in which you find yourself napping after three. Instead, target things you think are an easier fix, like adding a fan to your bedroom or sticking to a no caffeine before bed rule.

Still sound impossible to change your sleep habits? Another powerful benefit to sleep is that it improves thinking and memory. Many studies have been used to demonstrate powerful effects of sleep on learning. Through a process called consolidation, memories become more durable and long-lasting after a full night sleep compared to learning when sleep deprived. If fear is a factor for change, people have even been known to die from extreme sleep deprivation! This Ted-Ed video describes terrifying accounts of individuals who have attempted long stints of sleep-deprivation. Not only have individuals’ memories and other cognitive function like attention suffered from days without sleeping, but their personality and sanity became distorted too.  

College is hard, but with a focus on learning strategies and sleep we could take so much of the pressure off the process. The next time you suffer through an all-nighter make a commitment to change your behavior. Tell a friend and make a pact to plan out studying and hold one another accountable to stick with it. Your future self will thank you.


Chitiga, M., Kaniuka, T., & Ombonga, M. (2019). How do millennials learn?: Implications for higher education pedagogy. International Journal of Information and Communication Technology Education, 15(1), 29-41.

Dunlosky, J. (2013). Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning. American Educator, 37(3), 12-21.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58.

Cognition is Everywhere

I recently visited my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Mount Union, in Ohio to talk about issues related to learning and memory. It’s always good to go back especially with something to share! Psychological Science allow for its educators and researchers to share what they know with others. This was a great opportunity to talk about memory and aging with seniors who graduated from the University. In the image you can see one of my most engaged audiences in a long time. Sorry undergraduates, but these seniors from Copeland Oaks had several questions about how to preserve their memory and were very lively! I shared knowledge about how memory works and how seniors can make small changes in behavior that result in large gains in remembering.

Similarly, I also shared my LEARN method for educating students about successful learning strategies with several classes of UMU college students. I hope they enjoyed some learning success tips as much as I liked interacting with them.

Memory Myth: We Use Only 10% of our Brain

A common memory misconception is that we only use a small percentage of our brain; like about 10%. This is untrue and is based on incorrect interpretations about the brain and memory. Movies like Limitless and Momento, while entertaining, sensationalize what happens in the brain and create stories to fill in the gaps (the brain is complicated). People have bought into the idea that we have some untapped potential that has gone to waste. There are no pills or potions that can unlock our ability to learn and remember. It takes paying attention and using memory strategies to have better memory. Find out more about how this belief may have spread in this video.

Additional Resources:

Chew, S.L. (2018, August 29). Myth: We Only Use 10% of Our Brains. Association for Psychological Science.

Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2009). 50 great myths of popular psychology. Wiley-Blackwell.

Social Media Damages Memory Accuracy

Have you ever looked at vacation pictures and felt more connected to the picture itself than the actual memory of the vacation? We often are too connected to our phone and social media during fun experiences like vacation that we end up sacrificing our memory. That’s right, memory researchers have found that the more you take pictures or focus on posting about our experiences on social media, the less detail you actually remember. Unless you are hoping to catch an award-winning photo, put the phone down and let your memory capture the sights and sounds of life’s memorable experiences.

Want More Information on Media Use and Memory?

Resnick, B. (2018, March 28). What smartphone photography is doing to our memories. Sharing photos may subtly change what — and how — we remember. Vox.

Tamir, D. I., Templeton, E. M., Ward, A. F. & Zaki, J. (2018). Media usage diminishes memory for experiences,
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 161-168,

Tip of the Tongue?

How often do you fail to remember the name of the person who just said hi to you but YOU KNOW YOU KNOW who they are? This common problem is often referred to as Tip of the Tongue State. Find out what to do to correct this every day memory problem in this video.

Want more information on Tip of the Tongue?

Brown, R., & McNeill, D. (1966). The “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 5(4), 325-337.

Cherry, K. (n.d.). Lethologica or Tip of the Tongue Phenomenon. Verywellmind.

Finding Joy in Memory

There are lots of reasons to feel negatively affected by the world around you. Personal struggles, mental, physical, financial, just to name a few, may be affecting you now more than ever. Psychology explains much of human behavior by looking at motivating factors. Some motivators are positive, like using the promise of a walk outside at the end of the work day to push through. Other motivators call you to action all the same, but have a dark side. For example, I’m guilty of telling my children that if they don’t behave according to expectations that I will take away their TV time. Most people, including my children, respond better with a positive motivators.

Like motivation, the way we view the world can be shrouded in positivity and negativity. The more I spend my working life online, the less I spend talking to students and colleagues face-to-face. This experience has shifted the amount of time I seem to be alone with my thoughts —  SO MUCH MORE.

Photo by Maddog 229 on

I’m reminded that my memory reflects who I am and largely shapes my inner voice. The idea that our memory shapes our personality is one I never get tired of considering. Charles Fernyhough, author and psychologist, describes how memory forms identify in more detail here. If you too find yourself alone coping with our current world more than ever, emphasis on the following memory processes can make your LIFE MORE POSITIVE.

Positivity Bias, also called the Pollyanna principle (named after a book character similar to a modern-day Disney Princess – think Amy Adams as Giselle in Enchanted), is the human tendency to focus on the positive. Bias refers to a general cognitive term, not necessarily always with a negative connotation, in which we are more likely to think one way over the other. This is great news as life seems to be stacking on the difficulty. Just today alone I’ve chatted with two people about how easy it is to focus on negative aspects of life. Maybe it is a small mishap like spilling your morning coffee on a computer or something life-changing like losing a job. Either way, the cumulative effects of daily life can be draining. Those who believe good outweighs the bad are likely to be happier and more resilient in the face of life’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Bekka Mongeau on

Forgetting. Daniel L. Schacter’s groundbreaking work on memory suggests that the secret to a good memory may be forgetting. Consider being able to remember too many mundane details of your life: what you ate each day, the clothes you wear, and all the conversations you have. For a very small number of people this ability, known as hyperthymesia, or highly superior autobiographical memory, is more of a curse than a blessing. Remembering what you did each day may turn out to be a fun party trick; however, for many of these people remembering everything personal has led to depression. Think of it this way. When we have a bad breakup as a teen or suffer an embarrassment at the office most of us, overtime, consider the event less terrible. A dulling of the severity or negativity of the memory has occurred. This normal course of forgetting allows us to become wiser and learn from our experiences. It also gives us the opportunity to reshape our thinking and put negativity in the past. Not being able to forget details of extremely negative events, like a traumatic car accident or a violent act when remembered, can lead to Post-traumatic Stress and anxiety.

As much as we may wish for a better memory, forgetting has its advantages!

Reminiscence or discussing the past can also be a favorite way to live in the present reality. Psychologists have discovered a reminiscence bump for memory; individuals older than 40 tend to remember positive events from their teens and twenties more than self-knowledge for other time periods. I think my grandpa was right in how he thought of the past. As a small child I recall his monthly magazine called Reminisce, which I’m delighted to see is still in publication. I would eagerly crawl into his lap to help him with each edition’s notorious seek-and-find game, the where is “Hattie’s Hatpin Contest.” Chances are you may not even know what a hatpin is. As a child of the 1980’s I only saw the one “I found” within these magazines. I suspect what makes this publication so popular and timeless is that we can always relive the past. Through music, laughter, photographs, and video we now more than ever can relive a happy memory of the past.


Depression Basics. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from:

Fernyhough, C. (January 13, 2012). The story of the self. The Guardian. Retrieved from:

Josephson, B. (Producer), & Lima, K. (Director). (2007). Enchanted [Motion Picture]. United States: Walt Disney Studios.

Murray, B. (October, 2003). The seven sins of memory. Monitor, 34(4), 28. Retrieved from:

Memory Health is Mental Health

My students in human memory class are writing a blog for a final course project. This assignment was given in advance of Covid-19 and they could write about ANY topic related to memory. To my surprise, several students decided to write about mental health. This got me thinking about the natural connection between mental health and memory.

Memory Health is Sleep Health:

You may have heard about the connection between sleep and memory. During sleep, memories are consolidated, into neural structures of the brain to a more long-lasting state. Although the most durable memory could take months or years to consolidate, good sleep hygiene elevates our chance of remembering. Many psychological studies have shown the role between learning something, and then sleeping adequately. Sleep’s ultimate payoff may be better memory. Sleep seems to offer a restorative process for brain health. Getting the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night does more than just make us feel refreshed. Non-neurons called glial cells clean and prune unnecessary cells while we sleep. Bottom line is that adequate sleep makes us more energized, our brains healthier, and assists us in remembering. I recommend sticking to a sleep schedule and taking steps to promote sleep during this time. The National Sleep Foundation has some great tips here.

Memory Health is Positive Self-esteem:

Have you heard of the Pollyanna principle? My students have no idea who Pollyanna was but I give them a good analogue – a Disney princess, particularly the character Giselle in Enchanted played by bubbly actor Amy Adams. Pollyanna is a woman from a classic book of the same name, written by Eleanor H. Porter. She becomes this psychological term’s namesake because she is always looking for the positive, even in terrible situations. It turns out that most healthy adults have better memory for positive events than negative. But, add a sprinkle of optimism to negative experiences, or maybe just a little time and reflection and you can remember things in a slightly better light. Take a terrible break up. In the moment it seems like you cannot feel lower. You may not eat, you may cry a lot, and mild depression is common. Many people manage to grow through a bad breakup, reporting years later that they “learned something”, “grew as a person”, or “it wasn’t really that bad.” Thinking positively can lead to greater optimism in the present. Having an overall tendency or bias to remain optimistic has memory benefits; you are more likely to remember positive experiences over negative.

It is important to realize that no amount of positivity can replace the real despair of death or major loss of income. People during this time may need real help. I’m particularly impressed by the American Psychological Association’s commitment to providing pandemic-related resources.  

Memory Health is Overall Wellness:

Our thinking can be dramatically influenced by how we live our life. Maintaining positivity and clearer thinking can be enhanced by managing our health through diet and exercise. Go outside and see how people social distancing are spilling out of their houses to enjoy nature. When you are out think about connecting to nature in a deep and meaningful way. Wellness also is maintained by socialization. If you are tired of spending time on the screen you can still connect. Family and friends may be pleased by receiving a card or a phone call. Maybe these “archaic” methods of communication can become our favorite again.

Memory health is mental health. Take control of your sleep, take control of how you view the world, and take control of your wellness.

Karla A. Lassonde


American Psychological Association resources retrieved:

Bec, C. (2019, March 2). The brain literally starts eating itself when it doesn’t get enough sleep. Retrieved from:

Curcio, G., Ferrara, M. & De Gennaro, L. (2006). Sleep loss, learning capacity and academic performance. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 10, 323-337.

Howard, K. C. (2005, Apr 25). “Pollyanna principle”positively captivates UNLV researchers: [final edition]. Las Vegas Review – Journal Retrieved from

National Sleep Foundation resources retrieved:

Viral Memory?

Are you feeling stressed?

Chances are this time of unknowns with social/work/family change has you, and your friends and neighbors, on edge. With social distancing though you would need to be a fly on the wall in the homes of your friends to share the reality of this change. Because we are all in this together but actually may be alone, here is some insight into your mental response to the current situation.

Those who enjoy long stints online or gaming with little face-to-face contact may be better equipped for this new found isolation. It seems like many in our culture are comfortably connected on social media more than they are with face-to-face socialization. Author and researcher Sherry Turkle has asserted in her book Alone Together that a generation has learned to expect more from technology than one another.

This mix of stress and enhanced digital connection got me thinking about how our experience through Covid-19 isolation will influence our memory.

Knowledge of memory tells me one thing primarily — Do your best to cope during this time because you will remember it! Our brains encode new and unique experiences more than common ones. As my late grandma would say, “enjoy your life now as it really speeds up as you get older.” She was right by the way as grandmothers always are! This quickening of life is partly due to ‘the same old same old” experiences occurring as we age. College, marriage, birth, and career experiences mark our earlier years and their uniqueness stamp out and slow down time.

For many, this virus crisis will account for something memory researchers call flashbulb memory. First described by psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulick, these memories take on a characteristic like an old flashbulb camera. The light from the bulb illuminates the scene and a picture in time is created. Generations have experienced these indelible memories during the death of JFK, 9/11, and now perhaps a new generation with the corona virus.

My hope is that this period of time expires quite quickly. If it does we can be sure we are all under acute stress. These short periods of stress call upon the sympathetic nervous system to do its job; think fight or flight. During these times of stress our senses, including cognitive abilities like decision-making and memory processes, are enhanced leaving us with vivid memory. Spending two weeks in the house, with or without family members, can lead to enhanced memory for this time. The other option, which no one wants, is to deal with chronic stress. If the effects of Covid 19 are long-lasting then our body releases chemicals that negatively effect our memory, sleep, and other bodily functions.

Okay, so in the best case scenario I have two takes-aways:

1.) This unique time of our lives is so unusual that the days are likely to feel long and we are likely to remember this time period well.

2.) Our stress level, whether acute or chronic, will determine how our brains and bodies respond to this time period.

From a psychological perspective I suggest the following:

  • Avoid social comparison. As much as social media might save you during this time (think workout and educational videos) comparing your experience to others is dangerous. You do you!
  • Don’t believe everyone else is FINE. Chances are our view of others dealing with this situation (think social media family pictures of game-playing, working out, and writing poems) is curated so THEY ALL look happy and well.
  • Take care of yourself and your loved ones first. Try to focus on some basics: eat well, sleep, get outside, laugh, and lower your expectations. This last one is for me so I’ll say it another way. Be kind to yourself and others.
  • Think of how you can help others where you are. Make a phone or video call to someone more isolated than you, donate to a food bank or your local United Way.

Science of Learning Course for College Student Success

This spring semester I am excited to be teaching a new course on effective learning.

The course, Psychology 150: Science of Learning for College Student Success is designed for any undergraduate student to learn how to learn, a skill that is surprisingly absent from any student curriculum, k-12 and college students respectively.

Psychologists in the field of learning science have been honing in on best practices for learning for over a century. Unfortunately, it is only quite recently that these learning methods have been introduced to students and educators. The references below provide wonderful resources on the science of learning. Picking up any one of these would provide clear and accessible information on how the knowledge gained through learning science can lead to breakthrough changes in learning. Two of my favorites are Powerful Teaching by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain and Understanding How We Learn by researchers and teachers Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki.

person holding open book on table inside room
Photo by Christina Morillo on

While these resources can be quite useful for motivated learners, for many students who have been using the same study and learning methods for years (e.g., reading and re-reading their notes, highlighting key concepts; see this Scientific American article on learning strategies that do and do not work) many learners will require deliberate practice and consistent enforcement of useful learning strategies. For example, long-term memory for new information requires that we think about the knowledge and retrieve it often from memory. Students who are told they need to retrieve what they are learning by testing themselves may greatly benefit from classroom practice.

In PSYC 150 my students will be introduced to learning methods but will also work with course peer-tutors to apply the methods to what they need to learn in their other college courses. In addition, the course will emphasize my LEARN method which incorporates cognitive knowledge, learning strategies, and information on healthy practices outside of the classroom.

Planning a new course is not easy and getting additional resources from my university has been even more difficult. I have other trailblazers to thank though for establishing the course. Cognitive psychologists Ed DeLosh, Anne Cleary, and Matthew Rhodes have been teaching a science learning class now for several years. Rather than getting resources to teach the course at the university-level the best chance for success is to incorporate it into a department. Psychology is a natural fit, but other students need the opportunity too. So I recommend incorporating similar modules into first-year experience courses and to build learning content workshops into already established centers for academic success. These bottom-up strategies take some creative thinking but are starting points to a larger university buy-in.

text on shelf
Photo by Pixabay on

  • Pick up any of these mentioned resources and start reading – see what ideas you can begin using now!
  • Talk about new learning strategies with another student or educator and hold one another accountable for trying some out.
  • If you teach a class, find a way to introduce ideas from the LEARN method or or into a few days of class instruction.


Agarwal, Pooja & Bain, Patrice. (2019). Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. 10.1002/9781119549031.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Mitchell, M. J, & Willingham, D. T. (2013). What Works, What Doesn’t, Scientific American Mind 24, 46 – 53.

Oakley, B. & Sejnowski, T. (2018). Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School, New York, NY: TarcherPerigee Book, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Weinstein Y. & Sumeracki, M. (2018). Understanding How We Learn A Visual Guide, London, UK: David Fulton/Routledge.