Technology and Student Distraction

In many ways, the ubiquity of laptops and mobile devices in lectures has been a boon to higher education—students can now respond instantaneously to online polls, collaborate in real time on written work, and engage with a range of media more flexibly than ever before. With those advantages, of course, come an equal and opposite set of possible disadvantages, and for many instructors the latter outweigh the former. As a result, an increasing number of instructors now include specific policies regarding technology in the classroom, many of them opting to ban laptops and mobile devices outright. Other instructors, however, opt to embrace—or at least resign themselves to—these technologies as means of rethinking the dynamic between student and instructor in teaching spaces.  The debate has ardent proponents on both sides, and below we lay out the case for each. 

The Case Against Technology in the Classroom

If you've been anywhere near a college campus, you've probably noticed the extent to which students are glued to their mobile devices.  What do they do with them when they walk into the classroom?  In one survey at six different universities, college students reported using their phones an average of 11 times per day in class.  In another study, 92% of college students reported using their phones to send text messages during class.

Recently, a faculty member asked us for advice about policies regarding mobile devices in class.  Indeed, this is a hot topic on our campus and at universities across the country.  We were able to point him to a number of studies examining mobile devices in the college classroom. Not surprisingly, the evidence suggests that cell phones generally are a distraction for students.

Broadly, we are not wired to multitask well (e.g. Mayer and Moreno), and using cell phones during class is no exception. Several studies have compared students who texted during a lecture versus those who did not.  Those who texted frequently took lower quality notes, retained less information, and did worse on tests about the material (e.g. see Kuznekoff and Titsworth, and Rosen et al). Students themselves realize that cell phone usage does not promote learning; in one survey, 80% of students agreed that using a mobile phone in class decreases their ability to pay attention. 

What is worse is that mobile device usage is distracting to neighboring students.  In several surveys, students have reported that texting is distracting to nearby students.  A study on laptops in a simulated classroom found that students in the vicinity of another student who was multitasking on a laptop during class scored worse on a test than those who were not near multitaskers.  While cell phone screens are smaller—and thus perhaps less distracting—than a laptop, one could reasonably expect that a similar phenomenon of distraction applies to cell phones.

On the other hand, smart phones and other mobile devices can be used for positive purposes in the classroom.  For example, instructors might choose to employ a variety of applications, including Poll Everywhere and Learning Catalytics, which can be accessed by mobile devices.  These applications encourage class participation and provide instructors with instantaneous feedback about student learning. 

Whether laptops should be allowed in the classroom may be a bit more nuanced, as some students prefer to take notes on their computer.  However, the temptation for distraction is large. Fried found that most students using a computer in class spend considerable time on activities not related to taking notes, and furthermore identified a negative correlation between student success in class and in-class laptop use.  Additionally, as mentioned above, neighboring students are easily distracted when a student on a computer strays from the immediate task at hand.  For best practices about using laptops in the classroom, see this guide created by Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning.

Should instructors explicitly prohibit students from using mobile devices in class?  It’s certainly worth considering, and potentially including in the syllabus.  It’s also worth talking with your students about the reasons why you do not want mobile devices to be used in class.

Lastly, it’s worth thinking about ways to maximally engage your students during class so that the temptation for students to respond to a text message or do a Google search is minimized.

The Case for Technology in the Classroom

Professors are worried about students who multitask during lecture and rightfully so. In the article cited below "The Laptop and the Lecture," students who spend more time on task tend to do better on the tests for that class. Why are students off task? What should professors and teaching fellows do to avoid making problematic assumptions about students' abilities or mental health?

  1. Avoid Ableist Assumptions. You don't become a professor because you want to talk to yourself. You do it because you want people to hear, share and interrogate your ideas. When a professor is lecturing over a sea of students staring intently at their laptops, they get discouraged. Often this results in technology being banned from the class. While for many students this may just be a minor inconvenience, students with dyslexia, ADHD, or visual impairments use computers to take notes and to access cloud-based assistive technologies. People with invisible disabilities are enrolling in higher education settings in increasing numbers and they have the right to access technologies that they find useful. Instead of continuing to focus on controlling student behaviors and inadvertently patronizing students with disabilities, maybe we should focus on what we can do with technology to engage students meaningfully with our content and approaches.
  2. Incorporate Technology Instead of Banning It. So your students are on Facebook instead of hanging off your every word. Or shopping on Amazon. Or watching the latest viral video. There's a solution: incorporate social media into your lecture. Ask students to crowd source questions using social media and see what their friends know about a topic. Use clickers to quiz students before and during the lecture. Inevitably the misunderstandings that need attention will emerge. But be careful. Check to see if the digital tools you use are accessible to different students. Consider using sans serif fonts, providing materials for lecture in advance of class for review, and using files that can be read aloud via text to voice software (avoid scanned pictures of text). A recent Boston Globe article entitled "Digital Technologies and the Disabled" highlights and personalizes these issues.
  3. Stay Interactive and Change Things Up. Popular belief holds that students' attention peaks in the first fifteen minutes or so of class, and then generally declines. A study from 2012, which tracked students' eye gaze patterns during lectures, demonstrates that this is an oversimplification of a far more complex process. So what do students pay attention to? The essential lesson is this: they pay attention to change. More specifically:
    • Proximity to the instructor. This means you are not a prisoner of the podium, or the front of the table, or however your classroom is set up. Of course, you can't be proximate to each student all the time—so move around! Change it up!
    • Humor. You probably already knew that students typically pay attention to jokes. But there's a lot more behind that surface observation: laughter in the classroom can make students more comfortable, lower their affective filter, encourage intellectual risk-taking, decrease anxiety, establish a more productive student-teacher relationship (and yes, I could go on). As Billie Hara points out, you don't need to be a gifted comedian to use humor effectively in the classroom.(Indeed, it's probably better if you're not.) It's not about your authority, it's about your students' learning. Of course, there are limits of taste. Here are some quick tips from the Center for Teaching Excellence at SUNY Plattsburgh.
    • Variety. Students pay more attention when you don't just read from your PowerPoint. More broadly, don't be afraid to change up the interaction in the classroom. If you're lecturing, why not change it up and ask your students some questions while you're presenting the information? If you've got a discussion seminar, why not design some activities for students to talk to each other instead of just answering your questions for the duration of the class? For example, have students turn and talk to each other regarding a prompt, or have students e-mail or text a written response to another student in the room and have them respond. This last option is a great example of how a technology-based solution can help students who might struggle with spontaneous changes in the schedule or be fearful of social interaction with a stranger.