Using the Internet to Study

Are your students using the internet to support their study efforts? In a recent survey of 139 first-year medical students enrolled in a physiology course, 98 percent reported that they were looking at physiology content online (O’Malley et al., 2019). Almost 90 percent of them did so weekly, mostly using material found on YouTube. Ninety-four percent said they would look for answers online if they didn’t understand something before they’d ask the instructor. Only 31 percent “fact-checked” the information they found online.

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The findings are from a small study—one course in a med school setting. It’s not work that justifies sweeping conclusions, but it does raise a couple of questions that merit consideration.

The internet is the marvel of modern life—actually, almost any statement made about the internet roils with understatement. It contains an inconceivable amount of information, most of it accessible in seconds. Got a question? The internet has answers, all sorts of them, and lots of them delivered with gusto. Answers can sound authoritative without being so. That only 31 percent of these students fact-checked is surprising, given their intellectual abilities and the importance of this content. One student wrote that the trustworthiness of online sources was “very obvious” based on “the quality of the videos, number of views, comments, correlation with previous knowledge from lectures and notes” (p. 388). The researchers write, “The absence of academic and ethical oversight, paired with students’ lack of critical appraisal of possibly inaccurate information does raise concerns about the overall utility of social media as part of physiology education” (p. 383).

The first question, then, is not whether students are looking for information online; most of us have heard and seen evidence that they are. Rather, the question focuses on the curriculum and where in it we teach students the critical assessment tools needed to ascertain the validity of online information. If students are comparing online information with what they’re hearing in class and finding in the text, that’s a start in the right direction. But video quality, number of views, and comments are not relevant criteria.

For those of us who teach, the issue is our continuing focus on covering large amounts of content. Technology has changed the role of information in learning. If you need an answer now, you can find it on Google, in Wikipedia, or hear it from Alexa—so you don’t need someone to tell you, to ask an expert, or look it up in a book. Relevant now is whether the technology-provided responses are good answers, right answers, or the best answers. Determining the correctness or quality of an answer involves some uniquely human cognitive skills, and like most cognitive skills, these are best developed with deliberative practice—practice that includes coaching feedback that targets what needs to improve.

The second question arises from these students’ preferences for internet answers over those their instructors could provide. On some levels, it’s pretty hard for instructors to compete with the internet. Instructors can’t be available 24/7 or be expected to supply instantaneous answers. The internet delivers answers without judgments—it doesn’t care whether a question is stupid or the answer is one the student should already know. And the internet will repeat the answer as many times as it’s asked.

On the other hand, the internet can’t compete with what an instructor can provide. An exchange with a student gives the instructor a sense of whether the student understands the answer. Both instructor and student can ask follow-up questions or delve into part of the answer. The instructor can direct students to reliable sources that further answer the question or ask related queries that might spark the learner’s interest. The instructor’s response is personalized, based on knowledge of that individual student or on experience that derives from working with lots of students who’ve struggled to learn this material. An instructor can model ways of exploring questions and finding and assessing answers. An instructor can make students glad they asked and celebrate the understanding that finally comes after a struggle to learn. And instructors can care about the student, the question, and the answer.

Pitting internet and professor against each other doesn’t accomplish anything of value. It’s about how they work together, what to ask each and when, and how to evaluate their answers.

What do you know about the extent of internet study that’s happening in your courses? These researchers developed a good question set for this survey. It appears at the end of their article.


O’Malley, D., Barry, D. S., & Rae, M. G. (2019). How much do preclinical medical students utilize the internet to study physiology. Advances in Physiology Education, 43(3), 383–391. [Open access]

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