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! Reviews.org 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:
DON’T USE YOUR PHONE IF:
- 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
AVOID THESE LEARNING TASKS ON YOUR PHONE:
- Taking quizzes or exams that require writing
- Listening to a lecture and taking notes
DO USE YOUR PHONE IF LEARNING:
- Requires quick access
- Calls for basic internet searches
COMPLETE THESE LEARNING TASKS ON YOUR PHONE:
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/02713683.2019.1663542.
Honma, M., Masaoka, Y., Iizuka, N. et al. (2022). Reading on a smartphone affects sigh generation, brain activity, and comprehension. Scientific Reports, 12, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-05605-0
Pew Research Center. (2021, April 7). Mobile fact sheet. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile/
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). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40561-021-00174-7
Umejima, K. et al. (2021). Paper notebooks vs. mobile devices: Brian activation differences during memory retrieval. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 19, https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2021.634158
Wheelwright, T. (2019, April 10). 2022 Cell phone usage statistics: How obsessed are we? https://www.reviews.org/mobile/cell-phone-addiction/