“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is master of himself if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.”
William James, (1842 – 1910)
Looking out at our students in classrooms today, with their texting, Facebook updates, Instagram messages, e-mail checking, Google searches, and tweeting, it’s hard to imagine what was so distracting for college students more than 100 years ago when James made this statement. Yet, even then, he recognized the propensity of the mind to constantly seek novel material, to leap from thought to image to belief to fear to desire to judgment and back again — all following one’s own quirky train of thought resembling the chaotic movements of a swarm of bees around a hive. Time passes through a warped dimension when the student finally returns to some semblance of attention, unaware of all the cognitive detours taken between points A and B. And that’s just the internal process, prompted by nothing in particular. How much more distraction is invited by today’s mobile technology?
People text almost everywhere nowadays, and so it shouldn’t surprise us that students are doing it in class. In this study of almost 300 marketing majors at two different universities, 98 percent reported that they texted during class. They reported receiving just about as many texts as they sent. Perhaps most troubling in these findings were students’ attitudes about texting. Here’s a sample:
In a September 2012 post I briefly highlighted a number of studies documenting that most students don’t multi-task well. When they’re texting, looking at Facebook, or cruising on the Internet and listening to a lecture or discussion and trying to take notes, they aren’t dealing with the content as well as they would be if they just focused on listening and note taking. And the evidence of that keeps accumulating, like the Kuznekoff and Titsworth study referenced here and described in detail in the January issue of The Teaching Professor. Using an intriguing study design, here’s what they found: “. . . 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).
It’s time we started exploring some of the tough questions on texting. The May issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter contains highlights from a survey of almost 300 marketing majors about their texting in class. The results confirm what I’m guessing many of us already suspect. A whopping 98% of the students reported that they had texted some time during the term in which the data was collected. They did so for an unimpressive set of reasons, the most popular being “I just wanted to communicate.” Fifty-six percent of the cohort said they were currently taking a class in which the teacher banned texting. Forty-nine percent said they texted anyway.
With easy access to all sorts of technology, students multitask. So do lots of us, for that matter. But students are way too convinced that multitasking is a great way to work. They think they can do two or three tasks simultaneously and not compromise the quality of what they produce. Research says that about 5% of us multitask effectively. Proof of the negative effects of multitasking in learning environments is now coming from a variety of studies.
Our students seem to be masters at multitasking—they regularly do more than one thing at once, or break from one task to work on another and then move on to a third. Even those of us not so adept at managing more than one task at once can “walk and chew gum,” which makes us all multitaskers to some degree. But our students combine so many disparate tasks: biology book open on their knees, they text a friend while listening to rap in the background. Many of them tell us they can’t study when everything is quiet.