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! 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:

  • Reading
  • 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

References

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/

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 https://www.learningscientists.org researchers and teachers Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki.

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

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 Pexels.com

IF THESE OPTIONS STILL SEEM IMPOSSIBLE TO TAKE ON, I URGE STUDENTS AND EDUCATORS TO CONSIDER ANY OF THE FOLLOWING SMALL OPPORTUNITIES:
  • 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 retrievalpractice.org or learningscientists.org into a few days of class instruction.

RESOURCES

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.