How ‘Google It’ Impacts Learners

A disclaimer:

I am not anti-technology. I am not of the opinion that Google is bad. The internet is an awesome tool, with so many benefits for learners and all humans. Technology, when used properly, allows students to interact with a smorgasbord of information and people, while also providing an enhanced medium for using, applying, and creating knowledge.

Now that that is out of the way…on to the real content:

In the paper Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at our Fingertips, Sparrow, Liu, and Wedner investigate how a learner’s ability to count on access to information via the internet impacts rates of recall of the information and whether encoding is increased for where the information is to be found rather than for the information itself.

“We investigate whether the Internet has become an external memory system that is primed by the need to acquire information. If asked the question whether there are any countries with only one color in their flag, for example, do we think about flags or immediately think to go online to find out?”

In four separate experiments, the researchers explore this question and more. Summaries of their findings are below. I highly recommend you have a read of the paper attached above (It’s quite short).

  1. When faced with general knowledge questions, whether the answer is known or not, we are primed to search for the answer. Searching for this answer on a computer is particularly strong.
  2. When we do not believe we will need information later, we do not recall it at the same rate as when we do believe we’ll need it.
  3. Because the internet is readily available, we may not feel we need to encode the information. When we need the answer, we will look it up.
  4. It appears that believing we won’t have access to information in the future enhances memory for the information. Believing the information was saved externally (internet) enhances memory for the fact that the information could be accessed.
  5. When we expect information to remain continually available (internet), we are more likely to remember where to find it than to remember the details of the information.

As a teacher, I find this quite interesting. If students believe they will have access to the internet later to assist them with work, they appear to be less likely to commit effort to remembering the information. This obviously has implications in the classroom, particularly with instruction and learning.

My knee jerk reaction is to take away all the technology. If they want to use their phone/tablet as a crutch for their learning, I’ll just take it away. And, for some assignments and assessments, this is certainly the way to go. But, when considering the bigger picture of learning and living in an age where the internet is everywhere, I believe the anti-internet strategy to be short sighted. Like many aspects of learning, instead of having the information and keeping it to myself, I prefer to let my students in on the knowledge (particularly with the use of retrieval practice and spacing practice).

I think a much more fruitful use of time and effort would include letting my students know about this research; help them to understand the conscious and unconscious ramifications of having Google present all the time:

How could this impact how you approach taking notes, studying for a quiz, completing homework? And, if the ultimate goal is to remember this information for future use and application, when is it in your best interest to rely on the internet and when should you abstain from its use?

I’ve found students often appreciate these types of conversations. They like being involved and treated like a mature learner. And, anecdotally, I believe they invest more in their learning because of it. Most of the time, when we discuss thinking about thinking (and cognition, in general) it is the first time they’ve really considered the learning experience. It isn’t really something students instinctually think about and they need to be lead through that discussion if we want to ‘grow’ more conscientious learners.

Now, realistically, will this research completely change how I do things in my classroom? No. Should it? No. It’s one study. But what it does do is make me at least consider its findings; contemplate how I use the internet in class and how I discuss its use with my students. And, as was mentioned above, we will have a discussion about these findings. As a teacher who strives to be evidence-informed, I believe this is the best use of education research:

  1. Read it.
  2. Consider its findings and relevance to my students/classroom.
  3. Discuss it with other teachers and my students.
  4. And, possibly, implement it.

Instead of trying to make the internet and tech the enemy of learning (because it isn’t going anywhere), we need to instead instruct and show our students how and when to use them properly; while also including the cognitive consequences of its use.

What stands out to you from this research?

How might this impact your classroom?

Please feel free to comment below.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

5 thoughts on “How ‘Google It’ Impacts Learners

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  1. Really interesting research. I’m intrigued by the impact our perception of the future accessibility of information has on encoding. I wonder if the availability of cheap printed texts concerned teachers in past centuries?!

  2. My students bring this up a lot (I’m a teacher and an academic advisor for my program). They are frustrated when asked to memorize a lot of content that is particular and (for their immediate application) too specific to be much more than a ‘demonstration of knowledge.’ I wonder if as teachers we can discern and highlight for our students what and when information must be recalled and why (to solve a problem or critically think through a case study in real time). Then, challenge ourselves more to acknowledge this ‘Google world’ to teach more skills in critical thinking, application, and problem solving that use the internet tools our students have handy.

  3. I provide my AP student 3 different types of resources to complete the questions I assign before a lesson (textbook reference, powerpoint lecture and AP classroom video). As part of our post-test reflection, I asked them to tell me what was the most common resource they used to answer the question and “internet search/google” was the most common response. In my conversation with them, I asked them to consider the credibility of the source and how well it might explain the concepts they were learning compared to resources specifically geared toward that end. I’ll recheck after the next assessment and see if it changed any behaviors.

  4. I think they have to know how they will use these knowledge in the futur. Will they have access to google for any emergency or regular situation ? Will they need this knowledge rapidly available so it become automatic. I guess they have to understand and discuss in what kind of situation the extended memory (provided by google) can be use. If i am a doctor and i have to decide for an emergency Caesarian will i ask google for the right decision? We need lots of knowledge readily available in our memory to take fast decision. Discussion with the students is very interesting.

  5. This is something that’s been on my mind! Interestingly, I heard a podcast yesterday from Smarter Every Day that discussed three levels of learning: knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Google can provide a lot of knowledge (information), but is not always the best way to gain understanding (the ability to take knowledge and apply it to novel situations). I want to share that idea as well as this study with my students this week and discuss how it impacts their learning. Thank you for sharing!

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