Quilting new learning habits

How neuroscience and digital technology are changing the way we learn

A Future Education Modena view by Angela Boldini , Stefania Bruni and Alessandro Zocchi


Photos by Nathalie Stroobant

Education 02 May 2024

When we talk about learning, one aspect that is often considered extremely important is intelligence, as measured by the Intelligence Quotient (IQ). IQ is indeed a useful tool for assessing our brain’s characteristics and potential, and it has been shown to correlate positively with success in various areas of life, including academics, careers, and social relationships. However, IQ is not the sole determinant of success. Personality traits such as conscientiousness, perseverance, and cognitive flexibility play a crucial role in achieving our goals. Moreover, intelligence can also manifest itself through critical thinking: recognizing how our cognitive biases affect our reasoning is essential to understanding the modern world and making sound decisions.

In our dynamic and rapidly evolving modern world, educators are challenged to equip students with not only specific knowledge but also the critical skills necessary to navigate an ever-changing reality. A variety of learning environments, including online platforms, virtual classrooms, blended learning models, and the massive integration of technology have emerged to provide new tools that are supposed to make learning more effective. We call this practice of bridging the gap between scientific understanding of the brain and teaching practices educational neuroscience.

Educational neuroscience offers valuable insights into optimizing learning experiences, since there are common and fundamental processes that are essential for learning in all people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, and culture. For example, research has shown that attention is a limited resource and that our ability to focus is affected by a variety of factors, such as sleep, diet, and stress. Similarly, both our working memory (the process we use to store and manipulate bits of information for short periods of time) and our long-term memory can be optimized through certain practices. In the context of the classroom, regular breaks, the use of engaging instructional materials, and the planning of clear objectives always yield positive results. Strategies such as mnemonic techniques, explicit instruction in study skills, breaking down complex tasks into smaller steps, the use of spaced repetition, opportunities for active retrieval, and making connections to prior knowledge are crucial approaches to improving learning.

Educational neuroscience also highlights that metacognition is probably the most important cognitive skill to develop for effective learning. Broadly defined as “thinking about one’s own thinking,” metacognition is the ability to represent, monitor, and control ongoing cognitive processes by stepping back from ourselves and self-observing our mental states and point of view on a subject. Metacognition can be developed and fostered through various teaching strategies, such as providing opportunities for self-reflection, appropriate feedback, and goal setting. By developing their metacognitive skills, students learn how to learn, which is a valuable skill that will serve them well throughout their lives.

"In a world in which searching the internet is often faster and easier than searching one’s own memory, people may ironically know less but believe they know more." — A.F. Ward, in People mistake the internet’s knowledge for their own

This is one of the conclusions that Ward reached after a series of 8 experiments, the results of which are nothing more than further confirmation of what the scientist Betsy Sparrow (and her team) had already described ten years earlier in her article on the Google effect, i.e., the tendency of people not to memorize, and therefore not to learn, information that they know can be found readily online. Ward contends that people struggle to distinguish between information stored internally, in their memory, and information stored externally, in their “digital memory”; moreover, when people retrieve information from their external memory, they tend to overestimate not only their current knowledge but also their future autonomous knowledge.

These issues were also explored by researchers Elizabeth Marsh and Suparna Rajaram, who raised more open-ended questions: Does our reliance on the internet change cognition? […] and if so, how does relying on the internet change cognition?” and also “Does our ‘internet behavior’ affect ‘offline cognition’?”. Neither academics nor other learning specialists have definitive answers yet, but these are important issues to be aware of, especially for people working in the early stages of education. In fact, it’s during our school years that we form the learning habits we’ll carry with us for a long time.

Indeed, while some data suggests that digital technologies can improve concentration, motivation, and memory abilities (especially in older adults or neurological patients), there is also evidence suggesting that excessive use of technology leads to attention deficit symptoms, impaired emotional intelligence, technology addiction, social isolation, and sleep disturbance. Digital Natives (DNs) also multitask more than older generations, leading to poor executive control abilities, decreased learning, increased distractibility, and poorer inhibition of distractors.

In some specific contexts, digital technologies can support learning by providing an active environment that promotes critical thinking, and e-learning can even be more effective and long-lasting than traditional learning. In primary school, resources such as computer-based programs, the internet, and e-portfolios enhance reading and writing abilities. And yet, DNs tend to process information in a shallow way, characterized by rapid shifts of attention, reduced deliberation, and rapid scanning. That’s why in college, handwritten note-taking seems preferable to digital note-taking, because the abundance of information and ease of retrieval that digital tools facilitate can hinder deep processing, the development of reading skills, inferential reasoning, critical analysis, and reflection.

As might be expected, social media has a major impact on the development of cognitive skills. Online social networking and communication platforms enable the exchange of knowledge with individuals around the world, but their excessive use has been shown to lead to addictive behaviors, gambling disorders, and cognitive deficits, particularly among DNs. Excessive screen time can adversely affect sleep, cognitive skills, social-emotional skills, and language development in children under the age of two.

In the most extreme cases, these behaviors can lead to new pathological conditions such as Nomophobia (no mobile phobia) and Fear of Missing out (FoMo). Here, both conditions are based on the fear of not having access to digital devices, generating anxiety and a sense of despair.

Technology and digital tools undoubtedly offer us many benefits and opportunities: they facilitate new ways of learning, they make our lives easier, both as teachers and as students, and they certainly contribute to motivation and engagement in the classroom. However, today’s teachers must be cognitively informed about all the dynamics involved in learning and take into account what the scientific literature is studying and discovering about the cognitive effects of prolonged use of digital tools, especially on young people.

In a recent special issue of the International Journal of Educational Research, the editors point out that:

"To benefit from the potential advantages of digitalization and to ensure they are aware of the dependencies it creates [...], teachers need to have knowledge of digital tools and the competence to use them. Furthermore, they need to be able to decide when the use of digital tools delivers an advantage and when traditional alternatives (such as print-based materials) might be the better choice for their students." — Paleczek et al. 2023

This seems the fundamental point to emphasize here: if, on the one hand, teachers need to be prepared and updated in the use of digital tools, on the other hand, it is of paramount importance that they are aware of all the dynamics and variables involved in the learning process in order to select the appropriate tool for each context and purpose. This is the only way through which teachers will be able to use technology and AI effectively, and they’ll be able to decide when to make changes in favor of digitalization in teaching, and when not to. The internet, AI, and digital technologies are ultimately just tools, and it is up to teachers to use them in ways that expand, rather than constrain or weaken, their students’ ability to learn.