A recent UCLA study found that envisioning an answer to a question before you Google it can improve long-term memory and learning.
According to the study, published on October 13, Internet users have become dependent on the Internet to retrieve information. The internet’s ability to store so much information and make it easily accessible is both its upside and downside, said Saskia Giebl, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student in psychology. She was motivated to find how the Internet and search engines could be used as tools for active learning, she said.
“The internet isn’t going anywhere,” she said. “So how can we find ways or solutions to turn learners into more sophisticated internet users?”
Researchers asked UCLA students to take an online test consisting of general knowledge questions of varying difficulty, such as “Which sport uses the terms ‘Gutter’ and ‘Alley’?” Students were then asked to think about a potential answer for at least five seconds before consulting the Internet or immediately searching Google for the answer. The participants then took a memory test on these questions.
According to Stefany Mena, study co-author and PhD student in psychology, when participants had time to guess the answer before Googling, they performed better on memory tests than when they immediately Googled the answers. She said it’s called the pre-test effect – testing yourself before checking the answer allows for better memory of the correct information.
Even guessing the wrong answer is better than not guessing at all, Giebl said.
“You’re going to make mistakes, but it will actually help you learn,” she said. “And I think it’s just a beautiful narrative because, for so many years, we were afraid of making mistakes.”
The researchers also investigated whether Googling an answer had the same effect as being presented with an answer, such as in a traditional lecture setting. According to the study, participants took the thinking test before googling and a test in which they had to guess an answer before presenting it. Unexpectedly, the researchers found that participants performed better when they thought of an answer before searching Google than when they thought of an answer before presenting it, Mena said.
Mena said searching for information via the Internet can be a component of active learning.
“If you can engage with the material as much as possible, it will make you remember better,” she said. “Looking for the answer, having to type the question and having to sift through the search results, … that kind of stuff like that could lead to better learning.”
Kia Hines, a fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student, said when the pandemic moved schools to online formats, it was easy to become addicted to the internet. But when her instructors encouraged pre-test behaviors such as giving students a moment to think about an answer after asking a question, it helped Hines become more dependent on herself, she added. .
“It allows us to think about our own response and review the material in our head. We kind of go on autopilot if we think we’re already going to get the answer in the next five seconds,” she said.
After hearing the results of this study, Hines said she became more aware of her learning habits and encourages students to keep up to date with research that is applicable to our daily lives.
Because the internet is still relatively young, its impact on our learning is a new area of research to explore, Mena said. Researchers are now looking to create engaging tools that learners can use to encourage more self-testing behaviors, Giebl said. Giebl added that she hopes students can enjoy the challenge of learning and not become too reliant on the internet to do it for them.
“If other devices are doing all the thinking and all the storing, then what are you left with?” she says.
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