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ATD Blog

Technology’s Impact on Learning and Memory: Digital Reading, Flashcards, and Chatbots

Monday, March 25, 2024

While artificial intelligence (AI) garnered considerable press in 2023, some significant studies that caught my attention in this past year focused on something different—old-school learning tools—such as books and flashcards. Are these traditional content delivery methods still relevant in the age of AI?

Reading on Screens vs. Print

Reading via digital media is changing how our brains process, store, and retrieve information in several ways:

  • Digital reading tends to be more superficial, fragmented, and multitasking-oriented than print reading, which stimulates more focused attention, deeper comprehension, and better memory consolidation.
  • Digital reading relies more on visual and spatial cues, such as layout, graphics, and hyperlinks, than print reading, which involves more tactile and kinesthetic feedback, such as turning pages, highlighting, and annotating.

There is also a logistical consideration when comparing digital and paper media. While digital media can be quicker and less expensive to create, it may not be as accessible as we would like to think. For example, if your server goes down, a book is still available to your learners. On the flip side, digital media may support diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, by giving learners more tools and options to receive and manipulate content.

Other Considerations for the Learning Experience

The choice of content delivery depends on many factors, including:

  • Content type
  • Content length
  • Content complexity
  • Learner’s technical savviness, prior knowledge, and motivation

For example, reading on screens is effective for scanning or browsing websites, or skimming short texts for main ideas. But reading on paper is better for longer, more complex texts that require careful analysis, critical thinking, and deeper understanding.

Reading on screens may also impair long-term memory, as it reduces the reader’s ability to recall details, make inferences, and apply knowledge to new situations. It also contributes to a greater level of extraneous cognitive load by giving the reader more sensory stimuli to process.


Which Is Better?

Although it’s tempting to prefer one method over another, the choice isn’t quite as clear cut as it might first appear. Some of the strengths of reading on screens are:

  • Accessibility
  • Portability
  • Personalization

Some of the weaknesses of reading on screens are:

  • Distraction and cognitive load
  • Eye strain and fatigue
  • Reduced engagement and critical thinking

Now that we’ve established this important fact, let’s explore a specialized tool for learning from text: the flashcard.

Flashcards: A Specialized Tool for Learning via Text

Flashcards support learning by using a technique called spaced repetition, which involves reviewing information at regular intervals to enhance memory and recall. Consider using this tool whenever an exact recall is necessary. For example, flashcards are effective for memorizing vocabulary, historical dates, formulae, process steps, or any subject matter that can be learned via a question-and-answer format. Basically, if there’s a single correct response, flashcards are a great fit.


Digital vs. Paper Flashcards

The quality of learning with flashcards depends on several factors, including:

  • Learner preference
  • Content complexity
  • Content specificity
  • Degree of nuance in acceptable answers

Some studies suggest that digital flashcards have advantages over paper flashcards, because feedback can be personalized to the learner’s skills and prior knowledge. Engagement can also be increased through multimedia and gamification.

However, other studies indicate that paper flashcards may be more effective than digital flashcards, as they offer more learner control, flexibility, and metacognition—but only if learners create their own flashcards.

Using a Chatbot as a Deck of Flashcards

The digital equivalent of a deck of flashcards is a simple question-and-answer chatbot. The effectiveness of the bot will depend on the chatbot’s user interface, simulated personality, and interaction style. As with all delivery methods, effectiveness comes down to the quality of the design, not the nature of the technology. When a chatbot is delivering dry, specific questions with discrete answers, it is essentially functioning as a deck of flashcards.

What Does This Mean for Learning Content Developers?

As we gain more experience with the variety of learning experiences that today’s technologies offer, a few key points arise:

  • Choose the appropriate medium (screen or paper) for the type and purpose of reading and encourage learners to do the same.
  • Use flashcards as a complementary tool to reinforce learning, not as a substitute for reading or understanding.
  • Design digital flashcards to include relevant information to enhance engagement.
  • Consider empowering learners by letting them build their own flashcards in any format.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness and learner satisfaction on a regular basis.

And remember, it’s about the quality of the instructional design—not the nature of the delivery technology.

About the Author

Margie Meacham, “The Brain Lady,” is a scholar-practitioner in the field of education and learning and president of LearningToGo. She specializes in practical applications for neuroscience to enhance learning and performance. Meacham’s clients include businesses, schools, and universities. She writes a popular blog for the Association of Talent Development and has published two books, Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learn Anything Using Neuroscience and The Genius Button: Using Neuroscience to Bring Out Your Inner Genius.

She first became interested in the brain when she went with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child. Although she struggled in the early grades, she eventually taught herself how to overcome the challenge of a slight learning disability and became her high school valedictorian, graduated magna cum laude from Centenary University, and earned her master’s degree in education from Capella University with a 4.0.

Meacham started her professional career in high-tech sales, and when she was promoted to director of training, she discovered her passion for teaching and helping people learn. She became one of the first corporate trainers to use video conferencing and e-learning and started her own consulting company from there. Today she consults for many organizations, helping them design learning experiences that will form new neural connections and marry neuroscience theory with practice.

“I believe we are on the verge of so many wonderful discoveries about how we learn. Understanding what happens in the brain is making us better leaders, teachers, parents, and employees. We have no limits to what we can accomplish with our wonderful brains— the best survival machines ever built.”
—Margie Meacham

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Thank you for this piece Margie. You wove together several important themes for the modern learning experience. I love the idea of creating tools for both experiences. Ensure there is a workbook to print and explain the benefits of annotating, etc. Consider designing AI Chat Prompts to help learners learn AI tools and create flashcards and review questions. Encourage learners to handwrite the questions, their reflections, and flash cards...upskilling +retention for Future of Work
Thanks, Kimberli. Watch for my upcoming self-paced course from ATD on AI and Emerging Technologies, or my virtual workshop on AI for Instructional Designers - coming out this summer on the ATD platform!
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