Is Technology Costing You Your GMAT Score?

Veritas Prep GMAT Prep Books on iPadI recently read Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. While the book isn’t about testing advice, per se, its analysis of the costs of technology is so comprehensive that the insights are applicable to virtually every aspect of our lives.

The book’s core thesis – that our smartphones and tablets are fragmenting our concentration and robbing us of a fundamental part of what it means to be human – isn’t a terribly original one. The difference between Turkle’s work and less effective screeds about the evils of technology is the scope of the research she provides in demonstrating how the overuse of our devices is eroding the quality of our education, our personal relationships, and our mental health.

What’s amazing is that these costs are, to some extent, quantifiable. Ever wonder what the impact is of having most of our conversations mediated through screens rather than through hoary old things like facial expressions? College students in the age of smartphones score 40% lower on tests measuring indicators of empathy than college students from a generation ago. In polls, respondents who had access to smartphones by the time they were adolescents reported heightened anxiety about the prospect of face-to-face conversations in general.

Okay, you say. Disturbing as that is, those findings have to do with interpersonal relationships, not education. Can’t technology be used to enhance the learning environment as well? Though it would be silly to condemn any technology as wholly corrosive, particularly in light of the fact that most schools are making a concerted effort to incorporate laptops and tablets in the classroom, Turkle makes a persuasive case that the overall costs outweigh the benefits.

In one study conducted by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, the researchers compared the retention rates of students who took notes on their laptops versus those who took notes by hand. The researchers’ assumption had always been that taking notes on a laptop would be more beneficial, as most of us can type faster than we can write longhand. Much to their surprise, the students who took notes by hand did significantly better than those who took notes on their laptops when tested on the contents of a lecture a week later.

The reason, Mueller and Oppenheimer speculate, is that because the students writing longhand couldn’t transcribe fast enough to record everything, they had to work harder to filter the information they were provided, and this additional cognitive effort allowed them to retain more. The ease of transcription – what we perceive as a benefit of technology – actually proved to be a cost. Even more disturbing, another study indicated that the mere presence of a smartphone – even if the phone is off – will cause everyone in its presence to retain less of a lecture, not just the phone’s owner.

I’ve been teaching long enough that when I first started, it was basically unheard of for a student’s attention to wander because he’d been distracted by a device. Smartphones didn’t exist yet. No one brought laptops to class. Now, if I were to take a poll, I’d be surprised if there were a single student in class who didn’t at least glance at a smartphone during the course of a lesson. One imagines that the same is true when students are studying on their own – a phone is nearby, just in case something important comes up. I’d always assumed the presence of these devices was relatively harmless, but if a phone that’s off can degrade the quality of our study sessions, just imagine the impact of a phone that continually pings and buzzes as fresh texts, emails and notifications come in.

The GMAT is a four-hour test that requires intense focus and concentration, so anything that hampers our ability to focus is a potential drag on our scores. There’s no easy solution here. I’m certainly not advocating that anyone throw away their smartphone – the fact that certain technology has costs associated with it is hardly a reason to discard that technology altogether. There are plenty of well-documented educational benefits: one can use a long train ride as an opportunity to do practice problems or watch a lecture. We can easily store data that can shed light on where we need to focus our attention in future study sessions. So the answer isn’t a draconian one in which we have to dramatically alter our lifestyles. Technology isn’t going anywhere – it’s a question of moderation.

Takeaways: No rant about the costs of technology is going to be terribly helpful without an action plan, so here’s what I suggest:

  • Put the devices away in class and take notes longhand. Whether you’re in a GMAT prep class, or an accounting class in your MBA program, this will benefit both you and your classmates.
  • If you aren’t using your device to study, turn it off, and make sure it’s out of sight when you work. The mere visual presence of a smartphone will cause you to retain less.
  • Give yourself at least 2 hours of device-free time each day. This need not be when you’re studying. It can also be when you’re out to dinner with friends or spending time with family. In addition to improving your interpersonal relationships, conversation actually makes you smarter.

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By David Goldstein, a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Boston. You can find more articles by him here.