Smartphones may hurt our ability to learn. Here's what you can do about it.

Think of your students, and you probably imagine a smartphone in each person's hands.

More than three quarters of young people describe themselves as "addicted" to their digital devices, and 97% of college students admit to using their phones during class. It's not all bad news; creative instructors and administrators have found ways to harness students' phone obsession for productive ends.

But some experts argue that the rise of smartphones has also hurt learning and memory—in ways that affect not only students, but everyone who uses the digital devices. In a recent article for the New York Times, Adam Popescu rounds up advice from experts about how to fight the effects of smartphone use on the brain.

Also see: Millennials say they learn more from technology than people

According to Joseph LeDoux, who directs the Emotional Brain Institute at New York University, people's ability to form memories has been undermined by society's reliance on smartphones.Day-to-day life is rife with distractions, but "many people seem unaware that they might accomplish more with sustained, uninterrupted attention to one task," Nelson Cowan, a specialist in working memory at the University of Missouri, explains. He adds, "It can be exhilarating to flit from one conversation to another on Facebook, but people don't realize what's missing in the process. Often the people who think they're the best at sharing attention between tasks are actually missing the most."

LeDoux explains that smartphones' ability to deliver facts instantly blurs our judgment regarding which information to filter and store. But there are ways to improve information processing and retention in our smartphone-filled world, Popescu writes. He outlines four key strategies to improve memory.

1: Practice, practice, practice

Repetition "continues to be the best method for transforming short-term memories into long-term ones," Popescu writes. The process works by building new connections in the brain, Popescu explains.

He writes that while the process involves "retrain[ing] our minds to focus on one task at a time," the good news is that the process is "probably [something you] did in your youth" and is "the easiest brain game there is."

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2: Slow down

According to Robert Bjork, chair of the psychology department at University of California-Los Angeles, cramming doesn't work and in fact leads us to forget, in the long term, the very material we tried to cram.  

The most effective approach, Popescu writes, is to incorporate the information into daily life, "ideally over time." Specifically, researchers recommend spacing out repetition over a few days—but warn not to space it out too far, or else your gains could slow, Popescu reports.

3: Reduce distractions

While it's possible to multitask to a limited extent, experts say most people dramatically overestimate their ability to multitask successfully.

"Memory and focus go hand-in-hand," Popescu writes, and improving your ability to focus will in turn help your memory. His advice here is blunt: "Stop engaging in useless tasks like surfing the web and just tackle whatever it is you need to work on," he reports, citing research that found procrastination brings stress and impedes focus.

Read more: Is multitasking possible? Sort of.

4: Take a lesson from Pavlov

Another strategy is to set up a system of cues and rewards, Popescu reports, citing Harvard research that found knowledge of an impending quiz can cut daydreaming by 50%.

According to Daniel Schacter, a psychologist and co-author of the Harvard study, "memory is very cue dependent." He recommends combining reminders on electronic devices with physical cues, such as notes or keys left in conspicuous spots (Popescu, New York Times, 10/19). 


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