BY: Adrian Smith
Maybe social media isn’t the best place to share what you’re ‘learning’ online. After doing a couple of experiments, researchers at Cornell and Beijing University revealed that the cognitive effects of retweeting and re-sharing information online could be detrimental to absorbing it.
For their experiments, researchers split participants into two groups. Each member of the first group was given posts from Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter) and asked to retweet what they were reading. The members from the second group were simply asked to ignore the tweets and continue reading each succeeding post. Both the retweeting groups and the groups who didn’t share anything were given online tests to gauge their knowledge and understanding of the content in those messages. What researchers found was worrying. Results showed that those students who retweeted answered twice as many questions wrong and showed a poor understanding of what they had been learning and sharing online.
Researchers conducting the experiment pointed to ‘cognitive overload’ as the reason for this group doing so poorly on their tests. Cognitive overload happens when processing demands are too much for the person trying to absorb material properly. This results in the person trying to learn being unable to process information correctly, if at all. In this situation, the processing demands of an activity go beyond the processing limits of the learner.
In terms of the experiment, cognitive overload means those people who were asked to retweet or share the information they received were overwhelmed by the decision of whether or not to share the message they were learning, instead of actually absorbing and what was written in the post. A second, succeeding experiment was done to identify what could be other effects of cognitive overload. The same students were given an unrelated paper test, instead of an online test, to see their comprehension of a New Scientist article, after browsing a series of Weibo messages. The studies showed a decreased level of comprehension here as well, even with this offline testing.
The researchers gathered that viewing messages and information online before their test interfered with the subsequent task as a result of cognitive overload. That said, they recommend not browsing online before an exam, as you will likely perform worse than if you hadn’t. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should deactivate your Twitter, or stop sharing articles and videos you find interesting on Facebook. It just means as admirable as it is to share what you’ve learned with everyone you can online, you should probably aim to retain the stuff you’re raving about first.