Explore how technology can be effectively used alongside learners to help develop good learning behaviours, with Mark Anderson.

The world of education has changed massively since I first started teaching. On my degree there was no talk of ‘cognitive load,’ ‘retrieval practice’ or ‘deliberate practice.’ Conversations about effective teaching and learning (whether that included technology or not) didn’t really happen.

Jump forwards 30 or so years and thankfully, that has all changed. It has been hugely refreshing to see the conversations and research surrounding the science of learning develop significantly. One area which hasn’t really changed much though, is the propensity technology can have to distract learners from their core purpose of learning. The conversation around behaviour for learning has always been around, although many use the term metacognition to discuss it these days.

Help or hindrance?

For every bit of research showing how technology can support and improve learning, there’s always a counter to show it doesn’t.

Take this article combining a few pieces of research – it shares that low-tech (i.e., pen and paper note taking) is best. “Understanding of the lecture, measured by a standardized test, was substantially worse for those who had used laptops.” The findings reference some of the reasons why the understanding was lower. It talks about learners’ distractions and engagement. Most interestingly for me, it showed that the learning of the students sitting next to those who had laptops was also lower – again, caused by the distraction the laptops had on them.

Others (such as Holland, 2017) argue that restricting access to technology robs engaged learners of the opportunity to develop their self-regulation and metacognitive awareness of their own distraction levels so they can make adjustments to their learning behaviour. Holland suggests scaffolding is key too:

“Everyone reading this has probably checked email, engaged in a 21 G-Chat, skimmed Twitter, or texted someone while attempting to look engaged. You might even be reading this post in a meeting! And yet, this behaviour has nothing to do with the devices at our disposal. It has to do with how we manage our own behaviour. If we want our students to understand social cues, to be able to look someone in the eye and actually listen, to recognize when to take notes and when to just pay attention, then we need to help them develop those skills and we also need to model them.”

Got the skills?

So, if this is true and we want to develop and model these skills, we should incorporate strategies for learning with technology into the classroom. We know that helping learners with their approaches to learning can have significant benefits.

It is important though to recognise with metacognition that it requires two things to take place:

  1. Monitoring: The process of reflecting on your learning or knowledge.
  2. Control: The process of using your reflections to guide subsequent behaviours.

What does this mean? Son, Brittingham Furlonge and Agarwal (2020) explain this well in their brilliant Metacognition Guide where they share two scenarios.

In the first scenario: “A friend asks you, ‘Who wrote Jane Eyre?’ You attempt to recall the author’s name, and answer with the name ‘Emily Brontë.’ After reflecting, you tell your friend, ‘I’m pretty sure about that.’ At some future time, you’re surprised to discover that Charlotte Brontë, not Emily, wrote Jane Eyre.” In this scenario, both the cognitive level (knowing the answer) and metacognitive level (feeling confident about your answer) were incorrect.

In the second scenario, they share: “You are preparing for a math test tomorrow. After reviewing class notes and solving practice problems for over an hour, you reflect upon your knowledge. ‘I seem to be able to solve these problems successfully, but I’m not totally confident. I feel like I could still get confused.’ You decide that you need to spend additional time solving practice problems.”

The important points here are that, at a cognitive level, you know you don’t have all the problems solved correctly – and at a metacognitive level, you are inspired to change your behaviour and study more. This is important, yet difficult to inspire in young people. Sure, you can support a learner by sharing that their approach, behaviour, answers to questions etc. are incorrect. It is however not possible (nor should you want to) to force them to privately reflect and decide to develop, improve, revise or revisit their approaches, behaviours or studying.

​Getting technical

We know retrieval practice and spaced study are strategies that can help learning – and then, from that success, improve reflection and internal motivation. However, this is not the same when it comes to consciously deciding to focus in class to avoid distractions whilst using technology. Luckily though, technology can play a part in solving the problem.

Just as intelligent software such can support metacognition by providing learners with spaced study and retrieval opportunities, there is software which can help to reduce distractions. Using solutions such as this to direct learners on their devices to engage in specific tools and sites, locking screens when they should be not using their devices, only allowing specific approved websites in a certain class – you can, as Holland suggests, ‘scaffold and support learners so that learning isn’t disrupted by distractions.’ The hope is that learners will, by choice, choose tools to help them, such as the distraction-free version of Word, or use the ‘do not disturb’ feature on their devices and applications. The important thing is to provide the right tools to support positive behaviours for learning in the classroom.

For more on Metacognition, check out this article: 5 classroom strategies for metacognition


  • Mark Anderson

    Mark is a global speaker, EdTech expert, trainer, blogger, author and key note speaker, known as the ICT Evangelist. He has over 20 years of experience in the classroom. Mark is the head of education at NetSupport, an Independent Thinking associate, an MIE Expert and fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching. His latest book can be found at edtechplaybook.com.
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