Smartphones And Texting In Class: College Students Face Poor Learning Outcomes, Thanks To Digital Devices

Girl texting in class
College students who use smartphones for non-classroom purposes, such as texting, are found to suffer poor cognitive learning. BuzzFarmers, CC BY 2.0

The reason why many college students have difficulty taking good notes or remembering what they learned in lecture may lie in their own hands — their digital device. Chances are if students are using their smartphones, tablets, and laptops in lecture for non-classroom purposes like texting, tweeting, or sending e-mails, they could impair their learning abilities, according to a recent study.

As digital devices make it possible to have wider access to information and people 24/7, students use technology as their go-to source for instant communication. In an annual Ball State University survey of college students, 73 percent of students reported owning a smartphone while 30 percent reported owning a tablet. As the ownership of digital devices increases, so does usage of these devices among college students in the classroom — and this trend is not expected to slow down any time soon.

Barney McCoy, an associate professor of broadcasting at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), sought to examine how many students tune out their professors to send texts or tweets, how often they were distracted by their digital devices, and their views on digital device policies. The study surveyed 777 college students from six different universities in five states via e-mail and personal contact.

More than 80 percent of college students admitted that they used their digital device in the class for non-classroom-related activities. On average, undergrads used their devices for non-academic reasons 11 times a day, while grad students only used their devices four times a day for similar reasons. The reasons for device use during class varied. Eighty-six percent said they were texting, checking e-mail (68 percent), social networking (66 percent), surfing the web (38 percent), and playing games (eight percent).

The researcher was surprised by another popular reason for students to use their devices in class — to check the time (79 percent). "That's a generational thing to me — a lot of young people don't wear watches," McCoy said in a UNL press release.

College students defended their use of electronic devices in the classroom by listing several advantages. Seventy percent said it helped them stay connected, 55 percent said it helped fight boredom, and 49 percent said it helped them do related classwork. However, more than 80 percent of students admitted that using their devices caused them to not pay attention in class, while more than a fourth said they lost grade points because of this reason.

When asked about their views on digital device policies, 91 percent of survey respondents were opposed to a classroom ban, 72 percent preferred the instructor to speak to the offender and preferred a first-offense warning, followed by penalties (65 percent) for those caught using devices for non-classroom purposes.

"I feel like the new generation has to know every move that everybody is making at every point in time," said Megan Conway, a UNL broadcasting and journalism student, to the Lincoln Journal Star. "It becomes a habit. Sometimes I don't even think about it when I pick up my phone."

The researcher believes it is important to understand why students feel the need to use their devices for non-classroom purposes during lecture. McCoy affirms this trend is here to stay, and he has even structured his classroom time to encourage students to use their smartphones in class. He limits the length of his lectures in order to give students periodic breaks. Despite his new class structure, the UNL professor knows it’s not going to keep students from having a text conversation.

"They'll multi-task while they're doing it," he said.

The idea of multitasking is dangerous though. Although college students are under the impression that they are capable of multitasking during classroom learning, this can impair their cognitive learning.

Fang-Yi Flora Wei, an assistant professor of broadcast communications at University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, thinks the bigger issue is not whether students can learn under a multitasking condition, but “how well they can learn if they cannot sustain their full attention on classroom instruction.”

Professor Wei says that a university ban on texting will not be effective, but using interactive instructional techniques or other strategies to keep students' attention may work.

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