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Education Technology

Study Suggests Smartphone Use Renders Homework and Memory Retention Less Effective

By Marina Dunbar
August 31, 2020

A study recently published in the Journal of Educational Psychology suggests that the abundant availability of information provided by internet search engines negatively impacts a student’s ability to retain the answers to homework questions. This lack of memory retention then translates into increasingly poor exam performance. The study was conducted at Rutgers University in New Jersey over a period of eleven years. A total of 2433 students were assessed, spread across twelve different lecture courses. The results indicate that the accessibility of smartphones and other digital devices render the task of homework as progressively irrelevant, as positive performance on homework questions no longer directly correlates to positive performance on quiz and exam questions.

How Smartphone Use and Google Affects Long-Term Memory Retention

Teachers use homework and questions to help students learn. In their study, the Rutgers authors draw special focus to the methodology of instructional distributed questioning. This method of teaching relies on asking the same questions (usually phrased slightly different) repeatedly over the course of a semester, distributed consistently throughout.

The element of repetition greatly increases the students’ likelihood of retaining the information. In addition, the slight variation in phrasing allows students to draw cognitive connections between each piece of the presented information. This creation of mental links further increases the ability to recall details from memory, just as a coherent phrase is easier to recall than a string of unrelated words. The mental effort necessary in first trying to calculate or even guess an answer is what allows these connections to be drawn. As a result, students who initially attempt to solve a question on their own are more likely to remember the correct answer, regardless of whether their initial attempt was correct.

A student checks their smartphone in their bedroom.
Manuel Del Moral, Unsplash.

Over the eleven-year period of the study, the researchers uncovered a fascinating phenomenon. Students who performed the highest on homework assignments consistently did worse on exam questions. By questioning learners, the researchers uncovered that many achieved high homework scores by searching for the answers on a smartphone and copying them. The number of students who chose to copy their answers also increased with each year.

On the other hand, students who performed worse on homework assignments consistently performed higher on exam questions due to the effort exerted in problem-solving. The researchers hypothesize that the hyper-accessibility of new digital technology is largely responsible for the steady decline in the usefulness of homework assignments as a preparation for exams.

Interestingly, the study also found that students who copied their homework did not have their performance negatively affected on tests given shortly after the completion of their homework assignments, such as post-lesson plans meant to cover material recently presented. This further indicates that copying answers primarily affects long-term memory retention as opposed to short-term recollection.

Stricter Regulations or Looser Limitations?

Naturally, there are other factors that could affect a student’s decision to copy answers and their subsequent performance on exams. The study acknowledges these limitations. “Other factors that may have influenced the decision to google the answer to a question, such as its apparent difficulty and whether the student was multi-tasking while doing the homework assignment or doing it under time pressure, were not investigated,” the authors write. “Also, other factors besides the initial decision to look up the homework answer may have contributed to the ultimate decline in exam performance.” Further research would have to be conducted before a definite conclusion could be made that looking up answers necessarily correlates to laziness or a decline in patience caused by new technology.

The results of this study pose an intriguing question to instructors and all education stakeholders alike. Should there be an attempt to limit the accessibility of new technology to students when completing certain forms of school-related work? Or should the education system accept that homework is becoming increasingly irrelevant as a learning tool in the digital age and do away with it altogether? Given the growth of online education, the former seems less and less practical. Regardless of what route is taken, it is clear that schools must make a greater effort to adapt to contemporary technology, both in material and medium.

Access the study here.

Featured Image: Chivalry Collective, Unsplash.

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