Do Those Who Grew Up With Tech Learn Differently Than Those Who Didn’t?

Close up of toddler using a mobile tablet


Do younger workers learn differently than their older colleagues? This is one assumption made about the group called “digital natives,” defined as those growing up at a time when digital technology was a constant presence in their lives, woven in and out of regular activities


Who are digital natives?

Young Asian girl using laptop at homeIt’s dangerous to make sweeping statements about any one group. There are always exceptions. Even identifying a group like “digital natives” by birth date presents a problem. Marc Prensky coined this term in 2001 to describe generations born into a digital world. But, as Brown and Czerniewicz point out in their paper, socio-economic status and birthplace are the real differentiators between those who grew up with technology and those who didn’t. It’s about access and opportunity.

Do they learn differently than others?

According to Patti Shank, some are using Prensky’s work and that of others to support the idea that digital natives learn differently than “digital immigrants” (another Prensky term). There are lots of articles, research, and science around how humans learn and how we learn best in the workplace. And lots of conflicting ideas. But one thing we know: deep learning takes time, for all of us.

What we know about learning

In her article “Why the Best Learning Professionals Use Micro and Macro Learning,” Victoria Kossoff, Director and Co-Founder at the learning Factor, cites three discoveries that help us understand learning.

Spacing effect

The spacing effect isn’t new. German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) identified it. We remember more and recall better if we learn material in a number of spaced-out sessions. Remember cramming? This is why it didn’t work. It may help get students through a test but doesn’t result in remembering much after that!

Testing effect

The “testing effect” occurs when someone is tested on material shortly after the initial learning occurs. Since we tend to forget most quickly in the few days immediately after the learning, testing is most effective when it occurs the following day. Learning theory tells us that recall strengthens the memory.

This step needn’t always be a formal test. It’s about recall, pulling that knowledge out of our brain. Kossoff says this also occurs whenever you actively engage with the material. For example, the learner uses the information to solve a problem. It’s practice.

Confidence-based learning

The third discovery she mentions derives from decades of confidence-based learning research. Confidence as well as knowledge is needed to act quickly and competently. Kossoff suggests that asking learners to indicate their level of confidence in their responses before answering questions on a quiz affects how the brain processes the knowledge.

Implications for workplace training

Business people training on computers

These three learning insights can help those responsible for training in the workplace. It’s not how digital natives learn, that but how they access and interact with the material that may differentiate them from digital immigrants.

How material is best presented varies. When given a choice between computer-based training and an in-the-classroom, instructor-led course, I’ll opt for the latter. (I readily admit to being a digital immigrant with a heavy accent!) For others, accessing online training on computers or mobile devices is preferable.

No matter where the training style falls between these two poles, these basic elements of human learning are good to remember:

  1. Present material more than once in spaced intervals.
  2. Provide opportunities for recall and practice.
  3. Help learners become aware of their confidence level in their new knowledge.

Micro or Macro learning

These insights are applicable to both micro and macro learning. Whether you are approaching a subject new to your learners who need a broad and deep understanding (macro) or you are providing additional information to what is already part of their knowledge (micro), you can present the material in ways that will facilitate retention and competency.

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Mary van Balen
Mary van Balen
Technical Writer at Delphia Consulting
Mary van Balen is based out of Columbus, Ohio and is a writer for Delphia Consulting. Mary contributes to the Delphia blog on Human Resources issues and Delphia Consulting and Sage product related updates.