Psychology Sorted cognitive research: The effect of digital technology on memory and learning

There has been a lot in the news recently about the effect of social media on mental health, but less about the effect on school and university students of reading or responding to texts during lectures.  As students expect to be ‘connected’ throughout the day, gradually mobile phones have been finding their way into classrooms and lecture halls. Students often argue this makes no difference to their learning, as they can disregard texts and interruptions.  But is this true? Another study from Psychology Sorted  is explored today, with examples of how it may be used.


Rosen et al (2011) conducted a field experiment to examine the direct impact of text message interruptions on memory in a classroom environment and found the effects to be a slight, but significant, reduction in memory.  This is an example of a study that can be used to illustrate research into the influence of technology and also to explore a common method used to research the influence of technology – the field experiment.

The researchers conducted their experiment in a classroom during a lecture.  The independent variable was the  number of texts received and sent (3 groups, no/low, medium and high), and the dependent variable was the score on a test based on the lesson content. 185 college students (148 female and 37 male) were told that they were going to view a 30-minute videotaped lecture relevant to their course and that during the session some of them would receive texts from the researchers to which they should respond as promptly as possible. They were informed that they would be tested on the material after the lecture.

The results were that the no/low texting group performed 10.6% better than the high texting group in their tests. The test score was significantly negatively correlated with the total number of words sent and received. Those participants who chose to wait more than 4-5 minutes to respond to a text message did better than those who responded immediately.  But in all cases the difference was only just significant. This led the researchers to suggest that metacognitive skills (including learning to wait before responding to disturbances that make us lose focus) should be explicitly taught and that it might be wise for teachers and lecturers to use strategies that focus on when it is appropriate to take a break and when it is important to focus without distractions.

Some schools have opted to require all mobile phones to be turned off or left in lockers, but the problem is that just because the student’s technology is ‘out of sight’ it is not ‘out of mind.’ Maybe teachers should share the results of this study with their students?

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