Smartphone, dim wits: Grades suffer when students use digital devices for homework help

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — It’s never been easier for the average student to find the answer to a tough homework question. A quick Google search will provide accurate insight into pretty much any query these days. Is instant access to any piece of information actually conducive to learning, though? Based on test scores, it doesn’t look like it.

A new study from Rutgers University finds that smartphones and easy access to the internet are harming modern students’ retention of information in the long run, resulting in lower grades.

Researchers note that students who usually receive high marks on homework assignments, but lower test grades (a half to full letter grade lower), are much more likely to use the internet for answers while completing their homework.

With these findings in mind, the study’s authors are questioning the validity of homework as a useful learning tool in 2020.

“When a student does homework by looking up the answers, they usually find the correct answer, resulting in a high score on the assignment,” says lead study author Arnold Glass, a professor of psychology at Rutgers-New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Sciences, in a release. “However, when students do that, they rapidly forget both the question and answer. Consequently, they transform homework from what has been, until now, a useful exercise into a meaningless ritual that does not help in preparing for exams.”

Grades on tests vs. homework shift dramatically

In all, 2,433 Rutgers-New Brunswick students took part in this study over an 11-year period (11 different classes).

A comparison of homework and test scores in 2008 and 2017 show just how much things have changed. In 2008, only 14% of students scored lower on tests than homework assignments. Fast forward to 2017, and that percentage jumps up to an astonishing 55%.

According to professor Glass, homework questions are supposed to be answered without the help of outside sources. Students should read the question, think about it, and answer to the best of their ability.

“If the student does this first and then finds the correct answer online, the student is likely to remember the answer, which will have a significant long-term effect on subsequent exam performance,” he concludes.

The study is published in Educational Psychology.

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