Does Google Help Students Learn (or Just Think They Do?)

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 26, 2015 4 min read
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New York City

There’s no question that in the era of the smartphone, the Internet has become a go-to place to find out something in a hurry, but does “outsourcing your memory” actually help students learn new concepts, or does it just make people think they are smarter than they are?

A little of both, find researchers at the annual Association for Psychological Science conference here. In a symposium on the effects of students’ online searches, several studies looked at how using the Internet affects both the way we remember and the way we think about what we learn.

Looking for Answers

Analyzing about 900 college students’ search habits, Adrian F. Ward of the University of Colorado, Boulder, found 59 percent looked for a “quick answer,” 26 percent sought “in-depth information” on a topic, and another 15 percent were simply browsing. Even when students knew the answer to a question, they were likely to check the Internet before answering. “There’s a sense that it’s in there somewhere but it’s easier to pull out your phone than think about it,” Ward said.

In one study, University of Louisville psychologists Nicholaus S. Noles and Judith H. Danovitch found that 4- and 5-year-olds are more likely to turn to adults for the answer to a question than a computer, while adults are more likely to seek the answer electronically. Interestingly, 8-year-olds turn to computers more than younger children, but less than adults. However, 5- and 8-year-olds are more likely to trust an answer from a computer if it conflicts with a person’s response.

That may lead to problems, as other studies at the symposium suggested students can become overconfident with what they learn online.

‘Outsourcing Memory’

Ward and Matthew Fisher of Yale University each found in separate studies that, as Ward put it, “using the Internet to access information may cause people to become one with the cloud, to lose sight of where their own minds end and the mind of the internet begins.”

In Ward’s experiments, participants were asked to answer trivia questions with the help of the internet, then asked to estimate how well they would do on a second quiz without help. Even after a few minutes, participants who had known nothing about a topic rated themselves (wrongly) as being likely to score very well. Moreover, in an experiment using financial literacy, the participants who started with the least knowledge rated themselves as highly as those with the most experience in investing after a few minutes of searching.

While people can find very in-depth information quickly on the Internet, Fisher argues that something about the act of searching online boosts students’ confidence in their understanding. Fisher asked half of the participants in his series of studies to first answer questions, then use the Internet to confirm their explanations. The other half just had to think of their answers and explain them. In some trials, he had students link directly to the answer of a question without using a search engine; in another, he skewed the search function so that only irrelevant information came up. Yet students felt more confident of their knowledge of a subject after searching than when they had the information more directly.

“It’s not the access to rich content,” he said. “In that Internet mindset, you think you know things.”

Those findings back up previous studies that have shown people tend to outsource their memory of information when they have access to it online. “People are more inclined to remember where the information is stored than the information itself,” Fisher said.

Better Memory?

But just because using the internet can make students overly confident, that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t learning.

In a separate study, Danovitch of the University of Louisville asked 125 Michigan State University undergraduates to answer 30 difficult questions about unfamiliar animals, like “What do red pandas do with their tails?” or “What color are rockhopper penguins’ eyes?” (If you are interested, I’ll answer these later on.) Half of the students had access to the National Geographic website to look up answers they didn’t know, while the other half used a National Geographic animal-facts booklet with the same information. After answering the questions, the students were asked how many facts they expected to remember in five minutes, one day, and one week.

Half of the students in each group were tested on the questions later that day, while half were tested after 24 hours. In all cases, the students thought they would forget more than they actually did, but those who had looked up information remembered significantly more after a day than those who sought information in print. There was no difference in the verbal or nonverbal intelligence scores of students in either group.

“The website may guide learners to information, reducing [mental] fatigue,” she said.

Danovitch acknowledged that the questions, though challenging and in an open-response format, were fairly concrete, and she is planning to follow up with studies controlling for the time students searched for information and their preferences and experiences with the internet. “College students may be more comfortable acquiring information from the Internet than books. With older adults who are less familiar with the Internet, we might get different results,” Danovitch said.

Oh, and for the trivia-lovers out there, you can find the answers to the questions about the red panda and the rockhopper penguin here—with a little searching.


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.