A recent article in the Educational Technology Research & Development Journal (February 2009) looked at the cognitive tempos of students today and thirty years ago. Over the past decade, the amount of time students spend on the computer or watching television during their teen years has grown to over 4000 hours (Cennamo, Saveneye, & Smith, 1998; Cowan, 1988; Healy, 1998; Lang, 1994; Lang & Basil, 1998; Lang, Bolls, Potter, & Kawahara, 1999; Lang, Zhou, Schwartz, Bolis, & Potter, 2000; Prensky, 2001; Tapscott, 1997, 1998).
The large amount of digital media may cause the brain to develop differently and lead to more impulsive behavior. Doman and Shichida suggest that humans naturally and progressively rely less on the right brain hemisphere from age five to early teens. The left-brain development is responsible for high-level cognition and perception. If this maturity is hindered and an imbalance begins to exist, then there is a tendency towards impulsive behavior. Restak (2003) suggests that new imaging technology and psychopharmacology provide proof that media-centric youths are exhibiting this uneven brain development and a growing population is being diagnosed with attention deficits and hyperactivity. Instead of retarding existing brain functions, it is possible that the Twitch generation is more fully developing existing latent capabilities.
Cognitive Load Theory describe the load placed on memory by various intrinsic and extrinsic factors that need to managed during the knowledge acquisition process Intrinsic loads relates to the inherent difficulty of the task, while extrinsic load related to outside influences that interfere with the learning environment (e.g., music, interruptions, etc.). Another way to look at cognitive load and memory is by the type of information being remembered. Gist memory relates to the essence or main idea, while verbatim memory relates to recall of specific facts.
Kenny (2002) confirmed earlier studies by Sweller (1988, 1994, 1999) that younger students remember the gist better than the detail. A short series of 1,300 pictures representing major events of American history was shown in chronological order to three groups of teens. The group that viewed the videos at the fastest pace (approximately three pictures per second) tended to remember significantly more of the context of the video than those that saw it at the two slower speeds.
Cognitive tempo is the balance between speed and accuracy the the trade-off is more about personal orientation than intelligence (Bridgeman, 1980; Messer, 1970; Wright & Vliestra, 1977). There are four classifications:
- impulsive: those who sacrifice accuracy for speed
- reflective: those who sacrifice speed for accuracy
- slow inaccurate: those who sacrifice neither
- fast accurate: those who sacrifice both
The Matching Familiar Figures Test (MFFT) participants are shown a series of pictures and are asked to select one of the six pictures that match an original picture. Researchers recorded how long it took the participants to make their first choice and the total number of errors they made before a correct choice.
The current generation was better at the MFFT-20 experiment in that the median time required to make the first choice was reduced by about 48% and the median number of errors was reduced by about 32%. The brain is benefiting from being bombarded with more multimedia. On the other hand, there are marked differences between the cognitive tempo of the two test groups. The current generation has three times as many "impulsive" students as twenty years ago and the number of "reflective" students declined by about 10%.
Bottom Line: Using technology has forced the brain to perform "faster" than it did twenty years ago. Internet usage also helps keep the mind sharp - similar to crossword puzzles and Sudoku (see article). On the other hand, the brain is taught to be more "impulsive". A recent article discusses how befriending a computer may lead to less social skills in real settings. Schools need to combat this with tasks that demand full attention for longer than a few minutes.