School & District Management

Does Technology Help Boost Students’ Critical Thinking Skills?

By Alyson Klein — June 06, 2019 3 min read

Does using technology in school actually help improve students’ thinking skills? Or hurt them?

That’s the question the Reboot Foundation, a nonprofit, asked in a new report examining the impact of technology usage. The foundation analyzed international tests, like the Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA, which compares student outcomes in different nations, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, which is given only in the U.S. and considered the “Nation’s Report Card.”

The Reboot Foundation was started—and funded—by Helen Bouygues, whose background is in business, to explore the role of technology in developing critical thinking skills. It was inspired by Bouygues’ own concerns about her daughter’s education.

The report’s findings: When it comes to the PISA, there’s little evidence that technology use has a positive impact on student scores, and some evidence that it could actually drag it down. As for the NAEP? The results varied widely, depending on the grade level, test, and type of technology used. For instance, students who used computers to do research for reading projects tended to score higher on the reading portion of the NAEP. But there wasn’t a lot of positive impact from using a computer for spelling or grammar practice.

And 4th-graders who used tablets in all or almost all of their classes scored 14 points lower on the reading exam than those who reported never using tablets. That’s the equivalent of a year’s worth of learning, according to the report.

However, 4th-graders students who reported using laptops or desktop computers “in some classes” outscored students who said they “never” used these devices in class by 13 points. That’s also the equivalent of a year’s worth of learning. And 4th-grade students who said they used laptops or desktop computers in “more than half” or “all” classes scored 10 points higher than students who said they never used those devices in class.

Spending too much time on computers wasn’t helpful.

“There were ceiling effects of technology, and moderate use of technology appeared to have the best association with testing outcomes,” the report said. “This occurred across a number of grades, subjects, and reported computer activities.”

In fact, there’s a negative correlation between time spent on the computer during the school day and NAEP score on the 4th-grade reading NAEP.

That trend was somewhat present, although less clearly, on the 8th-grade reading NAEP.

“Overall usage of technology is probably not just not great, but actually can lower scores and testing for basic education [subjects like math, reading, science],” said Bouygues. “Even in the middle school, heavy use of technology does lower scores, but if you do have things that are specifically catered to a specific subject, that actually serves a purpose.”

For instance, she said her daughter, a chess enthusiast, has gotten help from digital sources in mastering the game. But asking kids to spend a chunk of every day typing on Microsoft Word, as some classrooms do in France, isn’t going to help teach higher-order thinking skills.

She cautioned though, that the report stops short of making a casual claim and saying that sitting in front of a laptop harms students’ ability to be critical thinkers. The researchers didn’t have the kind of evidence needed to be able to make that leap.

For more research on the impact of technology on student outcomes, take a look at these stories:

Image: Getty


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.