Our Research > Selected Findings

Computer Interfaces Can Stimulate or Undermine Our Ability to Think

Constructing nonlinguistic spatial content enhances clarity of thought

Computer input capabilities have affordances that elicit different communication patterns, and influence our ability to produce ideas, solve problems correctly, and make accurate inferences about information. For example, a pen interface stimulates people to write more nonlinguistic content (diagrams, symbols), compared with a keyboard interface or a non-digital pen. Our studies have shown that expressing more nonlinguistic content directly facilitates 9-38% improvements in thinking and reasoning about math, science, and everyday tasks. (Read More)

The Digital Tools We Use Directly Shape Our Brains

Perception-action loop, and brain restructuring that supports new cognitive abilities

Throughout evolution, people’s use of new physical tools has dramatically shaped brain functions. For example, the advent of writing tools 6,000 years ago stimulated writing and reading skills associated with literacy. The manual action of writing symbols, and then reading them, led to structural specialization of the brain region for visual object recognition. The visual cortex reorganized in response to reading activity, creating the visual word form area (VWFA).

Using a computer induces rapid and long-term change in neural pathways. Within seconds, dendritic spines that connect neurons adapt to reinforce certain neural pathways in response to activity, which builds specific cognitive skills while pruning others. (Read More)

We Know How to Design More Effective "Thinking Tools"

In today’s world, we might ask: How could a digital thinking tool be designed to support the cascade of discovery and inventiveness of a Leonardo da Vinci?

Computer interfaces that stimulate more physical and communicative activity, especially novel activity during challenging tasks, can play a powerful role in stimulating neurogenesis and related cognitive abilities. For example, mobile interfaces support physical activity and exploration of novel environments. In contrast, computer interfaces that entrap people in high rates of simple and repetitive behavior (texting, checking email) can be addictive and compete with learning.(Read More)

Digital Tools Enhance Thinking More than Analogous Non-Digital Ones

Chain of activity-ideation refinement

Computer interfaces can increase our total communication more than analogous non-digital ones. In one study, the same students solved the same problems about science, but used a digital pen and paper for half their tasks and a regular pen and paper for the rest. When using the digital pen, they drew more total diagrams and more correct Venn diagrams. They also made more accurate inferences about domain content. When using the pen interface, students constructed and visually explored more spatial content. This stimulated thinking about the content displayed and making more accurate inferences. (Read More)

Interfaces that Mimic Familiar Work Practice Improve Performance


Computer interfaces that mimic existing work practice, such as a digital pen and paper interface, improve our attention, problem-solving accuracy, memory retention, and high-level planning. They leverage existing activity patterns that have become automated in our brains. As digital tools depart more from familiar materials and work practice, people experience higher cognitive load due to the interface. This overloads their working memory, so they have fewer mental resources available for focusing on a task. In our studies, people who used a keyboard-based tablet interface were less able to solve math problems correctly or even remember the content they just worked on, compared with lower-load interfaces like a digital pen. (Read More)

Conversational Interfaces Support Engagement, Active Communication & Learning

Multimodal conversational interface for learning about marine biology

Students can become powerfully engaged asking questions when they converse directly with animated software characters. In one of our studies, early elementary students asked 100-300 questions during a one-hour session while they talked to digital fish to learn about marine biology. These young students talked and drew multimodally while interacting with the fish. Since conversations are social and self-reinforcing, they are highly motivating and elicit high rates of communication. These conversational interfaces leveraged the socially situated way that people learn naturally. (Read More)

We Are Not Aware of How Technology Influences Our Performance

Many people are adept at operating computers, but studies reveal that they are not aware of when and how to use them to best support their own performance. In our studies, students are given free choice to select any computer interface they think will help them perform their best on a high-stakes AP exam. Typically, they pick a keyboard interface or non-digital tool, even though their performance has just dropped a whole grade point when using it compared with other alternatives. This surprising mismatch is called the performance-preference paradox. (Read More)

Interface Design Can Expand or Reduce the Achievement Gap


When new computer interfaces are introduced into classrooms, lower-performing students often experience a performance disadvantage while high performers do not. This can expand the achievement gap, rather than reducing it. For example, lower-performing students often make more errors when using a keyboard-based computer interface, compared with a digital pen and paper one or non-digital tools. This can cause their performance to drop a whole grade point, for example from C to D. In contrast, high performers typically perform equally well no matter what tool they use. (Read More)