Digital Platforms Can Change the Way Students Learn

Learning pharmacy school material through a laptop may help students focus more on concrete details, rather than abstract ideas.

Learning pharmacy school material through a laptop may help students focus more on concrete details, rather than abstract ideas.

New research presented this week at the 2016 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems parsed the differences between learning on digital and nondigital platforms.

“There has been a great deal of research on how digital platforms might be affecting attention, distractibility, and mindfulness, and these studies build on this work by focusing on a relatively understudied construct,” said study investigator Geoff Kaufman, assistant professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, in a press release. “Given that psychologists have shown that construal levels can vastly impact outcomes such as self-esteem and goal pursuit, it’s crucial to recognize the role that digitization of information might be having on this important aspect of cognition,” he added.

More than 300 individuals aged 20 to 24 years participated in the study, and between 60 and 100 participants were involved in each experiment. The researchers made sure to keep the size and format of the materials the same for both the digital and nondigital platforms in each experiment.

Two randomized experiments showed that when students used a tablet or laptop for an information processing task, they demonstrated a lower level of “cognitive construal” than their peers who performed the same task using a physical print out. In other words, the students who used a nondigital platform had a better abstract and decontextualized interpretation than those who used a digital platform.

About two-thirds of the inference questions were correct among the nondigital platform study participants, while the digital group answered less than half of the questions correctly. However, the digital platform study participants got 73% of the concrete questions correct, while the print-out group got 58% of them correct.

In another experiment involving 4 fake car models, 66% of the study participants in the printed material group was able to discern which car was superior, while 43% of the digital platform group got it right.

Another experiment demonstrated that those who used nondigital platforms were more likely to solve a problem-solving task requiring higher-level “gist” processing.

In addition, those who used digital platforms but also completed an activity designed to activate their abstract thinking performed better than those who hadn’t completed any prior activities and those who had completed an activity focusing on a concrete mindset.

Previous research provided evidence that those who take notes with pen and paper tend to perform better on conceptual tests, despite the fact that laptop notetaking typically leads to more notes than writing by hand.