Phones in the classroom hurt everyone’s grades

In classes where devices are allowed, students do worse on exams

Laptops and phones in the classroom can lower everyone’s test scores, a new study finds. Wavebreakmedia/iStockphoto

Are you ever tempted to check your phone in class? It seems harmless enough to take a quick peek. But a new study finds that college students don’t retain information as well when devices are allowed in class. That was true even among students who did not use the devices themselves.

And college students are likely not to be the only ones affected, say Arnold Glass and Mengxue Kang. Both of the study’s authors are psychologists who work at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J. Glass says he’s sure he would find the same results if he had studied middle- or high-school students. Why? The effects he and Kang saw are likely due to basic human tendencies — ones that don’t change with age.

These researchers had noticed their students were using laptops and phones during class. And they suspected there could be a problem with that. The human brain simply isn’t wired to do several things at once.

People like to think they can multitask. But the brain actually can focus attention on just one thing at a time. When people switch between tasks, their brains can’t keep up with everything. So there will be a delay as their attention moves from one task to another. Someone who is listening to one person talk, for instance, can’t also listen to another. They can’t even listen and read at the same time.

So what happens when students try to listen to a lecture while they check their email? Or participate in a classroom discussion while liking a friend’s photos? Glass and Kang thought this kind of multitasking might make it harder for students to learn. Their new data now confirm that it does.

Will this be on the test?

Glass and Kang worked with two groups of Rutgers students. Both groups were taking the same psychology course, just at different times. Both groups had the same teacher and covered the same material. The only difference between them was the time of day that they met (one right after the other).

The researchers then added one more difference between the two groups. One class was allowed to use digital devices on odd days but not on even days. The other class had the same rules, but on opposite days. This let the researchers compare how students with and without devices absorbed each day’s lessons.

On non-device days, an observer made sure students didn’t touch their phones or computers during class. At the end of the class period, students could use their devices to complete a quiz about what had been discussed that day in class.

At the end of the semester, Glass and Kang examined the results. They compared students’ quiz results on device days and non-device days. They also looked at results from three unit exams and the final exam at the end of the semester.

For in-class quizzes, there researchers found no difference between the scores of students with and without devices. But their exams told a different story.

Students did five percent better on sections of the test that covered material from non-device days. The difference was even bigger for the class’ final exam. Here, students did 13 percent better on test sections that covered non-device days. That’s the difference between an A and a B, or a B and a C.

Glass and Kang then looked at whether it was only the students using their phones or laptops who took a hit on their grades. Did students who chose not to use devices, even when they could have, perform better on the tests than their device-using classmates? Surprisingly, no. All students got worse grades for material taught when devices were permitted — even those who did not use their phones or computers.

More than half of all students used electronic devices when they were allowed, Glass reports. “So everyone who didn’t use a device was probably sitting next to someone who was.” He speculates that this made it harder to retain information in two ways. Students asked fewer questions, leading to less conversation between the class and the instructor. Those conversations are important because students tend to remember them, Glass notes. “And instructors, of course, respond with what they think is important — what will be on the test.”

Using a cell phone is also distracting to people nearby, Glass points out. Even if a person doesn’t want to look at the screen, they just can’t seem to help it. He asks, “Have you ever been in a movie theater where a stranger sitting near you was using a cell phone?” If your attention was pulled away from the movie, he says, you probably had a hard time remembering the plot afterward. The same holds true in the classroom.

Glass and Kang described their findings online July 26 in Educational Psychology.

Distracting temptations

Larry Rosen is a psychologist at California State University Dominguez Hills, in Carson. He would like to see Kang and Glass dig deeper into why tech use in class affects performance. Rosen has done some research into this subject himself. Those studies show that students have a “fear of missing out” that drives their desire to check their phones — even at inconvenient times. Such as in class. And that has a negative impact on their ability to learn, he says.  

The constant distraction of electronic devices may make students struggle more with complex materials, adds Jean Twenge. She’s a psychologist at San Diego State University in California. Her new research finds that teens spend more than six hours a day on electronic devices. These kids rarely read books or magazines. This makes them unprepared for college-level work, she suspects.

None of this means we should eliminate technology,” Twenge says. Technology can help students learn. For example, ebooks can be easier to buy and keep with you than traditional textbooks. And students with disabilities may require certain technologies to function in the classroom. “It’s just that electronic devices have so many more temptations,” she says, which “can be distracting.”

Alison Pearce Stevens is a former biologist and forever science geek who writes about science and nature for kids. She lives with her husband, their two kids and a small menagerie of cuddly (and not-so cuddly) critters.

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