Texting Compromises Learning: More Evidence

A study on student texting that confirms what most of us know: doing two things at the same time does not mean that both are being done equally well.

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Start with the conclusion: “These findings provide clear evidence that students who use their mobile phones during class lectures tend to write down less information, recall less information, and perform worse on a multiple-choice test than those students who abstain from using their mobile phones during class.” (p. 251) This is not the first or only study on texting and not the first or only study with this conclusion. The evidence is mounting, and it confirms what most of us know: doing two things at the same time does not mean that both are being done equally well. In this study students were instructed to listen and take notes during a 12-minute videotaped lecture. The control group did not text. A second, moderate-distraction group received simulated text messages every 60 seconds, and a third, high-distraction group received a text message every 30 seconds. Students receiving the texts were told to answer them. After listening to the lecture and being given a short period of time to review their notes, students were given a sheet containing the lecture outline but none of the details. They had five minutes to fill in as many of the details as they could remember. After that they were given five minutes to answer 16 multiple-choice questions on content covered in the lecture. On the multiple-choice exam, the more texts students received and responded to, the more their exam score decreased. The control group's average score on the exam was 66 percent, while those in the high-distraction group earned 52 percent. That's the equivalent of more than one full letter grade. Students who did not text were able to free recall more information than those who texted. “Specifically, students in the control group scored 36% higher than the group with low rates of texting/posting and 51% higher than the group with high rates of texting/posting.” (p. 247) Using earlier research documenting that on average students record about 40 percent of lecture details in their notes (Note: This early research was done during the '80s. Are students now taking more or fewer notes than they were then?), these researchers report that students in the control group had 33 percent of the lecture details, those in the low-distraction group had 27 percent, and those in the high-distraction group had 20 percent. If you are texting and using your fingers, those fingers aren't putting down the details. Finally, the researchers looked to see whether there would be a positive correlation between the amount of information students had in their notes and their scores on the multiple-choice questions. The correlation they found was moderate to strong. The sample size in this study was not large. Nonetheless, the research design and data analysis are sound. The article is well-referenced, including citations from many other studies documenting the deleterious effects of multitasking with technology in class. It is very hard for faculty to enforce a phone ban in class. Policing such a policy involves almost constant surveillance, and just like texting itself, that distracts the professor from the real work of the classroom. What faculty can and should do is make students aware of evidence such as this. The authors suggest including a short summary of research findings such as these on the syllabus. They could also be posted on the course website, or when the teacher observes a student texting, maybe the class is stopped and this study or one like it is hauled out and the results read. However, many students are still likely to believe that even though other students can't text and take notes, they can. Could that assumption be challenged with evidence during the class? At the end of one class, the instructor can offer a list of the details that students should have in their notes and let them check what they have against the list, while asking pointed questions about texting. Reference: Kuznekoff, J. H., and Titsworth, S. (2013). The impact of mobile phone usage on student learning. Communication Education, 62 (3), 233–252.