You Still Need Your Brain

Quick access is supposed to be a great advantage of using the internet. Students have always been able to look up the quadratic equation rather than memorize it, but opening a new browser tab takes moments, not the minutes required to locate the right page in the right book. Yet “moments” is still much slower than the brain operates.

Speed matters when the quadratic equation is part of a larger problem. Imagine solving 397,394 x 9 if you hadn’t memorized the multiplication table. Sure, you could look up 4 x 9, but you could easily lose the thread of the problem as you did so. That’s why the National Mathematics Advisory Panel listed “quick and effortless recall of facts” as one essential of math education.

Speed matters for reading, too. Researchers report that readers need to know at least 95 percent of the words in a text for comfortable absorption. Pausing to find a word definition is disruptive. Online, the mere presence of hyperlinks compromises reading comprehension because the decision of whether or not to click disrupts the flow of understanding.

Deeper knowledge of words also helps. Your knowledge of what a word means, how it’s spelled and how it sounds are actually separate in the brain. That’s why you may recall one but not the others, as when you know what you want to say (“someone who owes money”) but can’t find the word (“debtor”). Good readers have reliable, speedy connections among the brain representations of spelling, sound and meaning. Speed matters because it allows other important work — for example, puzzling out the meaning of phrases — to proceed.

Using knowledge in the head is also self-sustaining, whereas using knowledge from the internet is not. Every time you retrieve information from memory, it becomes a bit easier to find it the next time. That’s why students studying for a test actually remember more if they quiz…

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