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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Easy come, easy go: Googling is bad for learning

Students don't need to learn facts, educators have been saying since the Cro-Magnon first learned to search the Internet. "They can just look it up."

But, the easier it is to access information, the easier it is to forget it, reports Jill Barshay on Hechinger's Proof Points. Research on the “Google effect” suggests that relying on the internet is bad for our brains.

People who actively search for answers learn less than those who read the same information without a search, concludes a 2021 paper, Information without knowledge. “When people see how to reliably access new information using Google, they become less likely to store that information in their own memory,” the authors concluded.

"Across five different experiments, those who searched the internet not only scored lower in a quiz, but they were also just as confident that they had mastered the material" -- or significantly more confident, writes Barshay. "Overconfidence is bad for learning because if we think we already know something, we might study less."

"Just teach it" is better than getting students to "just Google it," writes U.K. teacher Peps McCrea in Evidence Snacks.

In other research, people who tried a programming task before consulting Google did better than those who tried Google first. The benefit was larger for those with prior programming experience, writes Barshay. "That’s consistent with a large body of cognitive science research that shows the importance of prior knowledge. Without it, it’s hard to absorb new information because we can’t connect it to what we already know."

Thinking first versus googling first, a 2022 study, confirms the results -- thinking helps even for those who don't think of the right answer -- but adds that four out of five participants prefer to just look it up.

The ancient Greeks feared writing would erode memory. "Socrates fretted that writing things down would cause humans to become ignorant because they wouldn’t have to memorize anything," writes Barshay. Fortunately, Plato wrote it down.

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Within their ability range (ie not every student is gong to earn a high A, even with effort), it's easy to determine how students use the internet when doing work. Good students may not need it at all, getting the needed information from lecture, discussion, or the text, but when they use it it's to watch a video or look up an explanation for whatever they don't understand. Sometimes the new explanation clicks with them in a way that the original didn't, and sometimes a bit of extra information helps them to make sense of a confusing topic. This is a good use of the internet, and has caused my good students to learn more and do better than stude…



I am reminded of the research on reading comprehension that has repeatedly demonstrated the necessity for having the requisite background knowledge required of a piece. Without knowing what the text assumes you know, you are absorbing very little.

I thought of this every time I read an article about the recent demonstrations in France against raising the retirement age. There were too many questions not answered to be able to grasp the situation as a foreigner. What does "retirement age" mean in France? Were these all government workers? Were these private sector workers on some universal government pension? Were these people who budgeted for one promise but were now being handed something different? Was it a combination of th…

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