January 8th, 2014

The Age of Distraction: Getting Students to Put Away Their Phones and Focus on Learning


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).

The evidence that classroom use of technology for personal reasons distracts students is sizeable. The question is, how can teachers get students to put away their phones and focus on learning? Even with a policy and overt attempts to enforce it (confiscating the devices, interrupting class to accost the offenders, etc.), without constant surveillance from various points in the classroom, it is very, very difficult to ensure that students are not using their devices. If the class is large, it is all but impossible. And that kind of vigilant enforcement is not without costs. If the teacher must be constantly monitoring who’s doing what in the classroom, that distracts the teacher just as effectively as the technology distracts the students.

Students and their devices have become virtually inseparable. They (and some of the rest of us) are using them constantly and find it difficult to disconnect for any amount of time. Couple that problem with the fact that most students are pretty strongly convinced they can text or be online, and do other things (like drive, carry on conversations, eat, and take notes in class) without the technology affecting their performance of that second activity.

So, I’m wondering if the place to begin isn’t by confronting students with the evidence. Kuznekoff and Titsworth suggest including highlights of their research or that of others on the course syllabus or, I would add, to the course website. Their article references a number of studies if you think a longer list might be more persuasive. If your style is a bit more in-your-face, you could come to class with a copy of several of these studies and when you see behaviors that look suspicious, stop class and talk briefly but specifically about the research. Students who text should do so knowing that the behavior has consequences—points, grades, and most important of all, learning are at stake.

But given a lot of the students I know, I can well imagine them hearing the evidence and still being quite convinced that even though other students can’t text and take good notes, they can. How do we convince those students?

I’m a firm believer that showing is way more effective than telling. So I’m wondering if you could give a presentation in class and five minutes before the class ends distribute or post a list of the five or six essential points made. Students could check their notes, or you could have students trade notes so that someone else is doing the checking, and see how many of those points they had. Now some students may miss a few of the points because they aren’t all that good at taking notes, but were some of the students who missed most (all) of the points also texting or surfing during class? Encourage them to ask themselves the question and to look honestly at the evidence revealed by their notes. No, you aren’t going to be providing one of these lists at the end of every class, but you may consider doing it sometime during the next couple of weeks as the new semester begins. And if students are really interested in knowing how texting affects what they’re getting out of class, they should try listening and taking notes without doing anything else.

Reference: Kuznekoff. J. H. and Titsworth, S. (2013). The impact of mobile phone usage on student learning. Communication Education, 62 (3), 233-252.

© 2014 Faculty Focus, Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved. Use of any content without permission is strictly prohibited.

  • Robert

    The study is really interesting, especially because it experimentally manipulated the amount of distraction via the mobile phones.

    But I really wonder about one thing:
    Attention is attention, right? So instead of trying to "distract students from their (self-made) distractions" I would recommend using the attention that is there (the self-made distraction) and use it for learning purposes, e.g., by presenting the to-be-learned content in the text messages. Does anybody have any opinions or experiences with these or similar ideas?

    In the original paper cited here, e.g., Kraushaar and Novak (2010) are cited, but is there experimental evidence that students learn "the same" when the content is provided in text messages?

    (by the way, totally distracted in a Skype conference while reading and writing this… 😉

    • Maddy

      I like your idea. The whole using the "self-made distraction" i.e. phones and using them for learning purposes.

      I have recently finished secondary school, but I remember in my technical and woodwork class, we used our phones to take pictures of our work in different stages.

      Of course, this is slightly different to what you are suggesting, but I think that what we experimented with in school, could be expanded and used more frequently in more schools.

      (By the way congratulations on making yourself distracted yet still doing a good job on your comment 🙂

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  • Kay Lehmann

    Stop lecturing! Lecturing is about 10% effective in creating enduring learning. Involve them in their education. Use active practices and they won't be bored, and therefore won't need to be doing things on their phones. And I agree with the writer above, get them to use their phones as part of the educational process!

  • G Brosnan-Watters

    I didn't try to convince them. I am currently teaching a stats course using lecture and writing on the board, and using their phones and iPads to take notes and do calculations. I am seeing much more engaged students!! I quiz them daily, plus homework, plus a weekly test (a three week class during jterm at my school).

  • Kendal Smith

    Totally agree with Kay Lehmann and Robert. You can't stop them (us- as I am one of them) from texting/facebooking/gchatting/surfing/etc. by giving us yet another lecture. This is our world now. It is already how we learn. Sadly, the classroom seems to be the one place that isn't embracing it.

  • Akilah

    I don't think lecturing about how distracting texting is will work either. I think our responsibility is to try to engage the students as much as possible. Some will chronically text or use their phones, but the rest will pay attention if they feel there's something worth paying attention to. At least, that has been my experience. I've had students set their laptops or phones aside because they're participating in the class.

    That said, I do think having reading that talks about how distracting technology, etc. is can be useful for a general course discussion (and can be applied to many topics of study) so that students can then apply what they learn to their own lives. If that type of thing were used punitively with me, I'd just be annoyed at my professor. But if it were a general discussion related to the course topic itself, I would make connections to my own life or in the lives of people I know on my own.

  • Mary

    As much as people may not like it, some classes require some degree of lecture in order to get certain points across. Using technology in conjunction with what is going on in class (for example, by using the website that accompanies certain textbooks or by photographing notes instead of writing them) is fine. What isn't fine is the disrespect displayed by a student who is obviously texting or playing games. Don't waste my time or that of your fellow students by doing that. You wouldn't want to go to the professor's office for help and find him or her too distracted to notice that you're there. You wouldn't want to go to a doctor or lawyer or any other professional seeking help and not be able to explain your situation because that person just isn't "into you" at that moment. Classroom discussions and collaborative activities in class aren't even an option when students can't discipline themselves to put the toys away and pay attention.

  • Doug

    While I agree with many of the comments regarding the use of phones to enhance education and to engage students, I think there is also something to be said for teaching students that there are appropriate times and inappropriate times to be using their phones. During class is an inappropriate time, unless your professor specifically asks you to do something on your phone, no matter how bored you are. Even if we could make our classes fun and engaging for 100% of the students, 100% of the time, there are still times, such as while they are studying outside of class, when students need to know that their phones are a distraction and are keeping them from performing as well as they could if they put their phone away.

    I also wonder how many students will be in jobs where their boss will be okay with them being distracted by their phone while they work and will be okay with them not performing optimally (either making mistakes, taking longer than needed to complete tasks, etc.)? How many of them will be in jobs where their boss tries to make work engaging 100% of the time? Though college is not about job training, students should develop and refine skills while in college, which will be useful in their careers. Critical thinking skills, communication skills, the ability to work in teams are among the skills students should leave college with. But they should also leave college with the ability to put down their phones and focus on the task at hand when they need to and the ability to focus and get work done, even when they are not engaged or interested.

  • Robert

    Doug, I can see your opinion and I partly agree with you.

    If you really wanted to address these issues (when to concentrate on a lecture etc.), wouldn't this mean that the whole course (at least, the courses I experienced so far) would have to change? I have actually never heard from a lecturer (when I was a student or now, when I am doing lecture visits at my institution) anything about "how to organize one's attention" or "how to concentrate" or any hands-on advice on that isse.

    The argument about the job situation later is not valid for me. Many students in their future job places will have nobody to watch over them all the time (and find out when they are distracted and how exactly they work), instead they will need to self-regulate themselves (a skill that is not taught well enough, according to my experiences).

    If you made it a goal of the course to teach these (self-regulation and self-control) skills, it would make perfect sense to make students adhere to the rules. And this would be great for the students (and their future job life), I think!

  • Jorge Santiago-Blay

    Could I have comments on what are faculty members doing re. policies on: 1. attendance/tardiness (or leaving early) and 2. use of electronic devices for non-class related matters? If you wish to reply to me directly, that would be OK. Peace and wellness, sincerely and gratefully, Jorge Santiago-Blay, email: blayjorge@gmail.com

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  • Dr. Russ Carter

    Cellphones, the root of all evil for students and instructors in the classroom!! This is a rule that I enforce totally and do not allow cell phone use in my class room. (My adjuncts enforce the same rule). It is on my syllabi and reiterated through out the semester, that all cell phones will be turned completely off. Any violation of the rule (it specifies first, second, and third violations) will result in poiints being deducted from their grade. It is distracting to me and other students. I sometimes have them turn their phones on and place it on their desk. It is amazing how much peer pressure is generated to the student(s) whose phone ring during that time; they realize how distracting it is. As a rule on examination day all cell phones are placed on my desk to be retrieved upon completion of the examination. Maybe this is harsh but they accept it and it works. Who knows maybe it is because I teach Criminal Justice and most (if not all) of the students are seeking a career in law enforcement and realize adhering to rules and regulations are important in that type of enviroment. My two cents, (which is probably worth less in the current economy).

  • Cara

    My syllabus is strict about electronics in class, but I now take "text breaks"–thirty seconds to two minutes out of an 80-minute class session. I stop and tell them to text their friends, maybe even tell them what they're learning. They laugh at that, but the text breaks still work. It has really lessened the antagonism with some students.

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  • P.L. Lindsey

    End each class with a quick quiz on the day's lesson. Make the grade count.
    One day I taught from the back of the classroom AND walked around.

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  • Daryl Close

    Let's not disregard the empirical data about learning mentioned here. Personal use of electronics in class deters learning. The data are clear. End of story. Whether it is possible to build a classroom environment in which students perform in-class learning activities on their tablets or smartphones is an entirely separate matter. I imagine it can be done. The question is, should it be done. Many students at my small college do not own a tablet or a smartphone, so designing a pedagogy that is built around electronic gadgets will treat those students as if they were lacking some essential tool for learning the course material, which is both false and discriminatory.

    We could also debate the desirability of caving in to technology as if it were some natural phenomenon beyond our control–but some other time. It's simply worth noting that many corporate employers, e.g., in healthcare, insurance, finance, firms that deal with valuable intellectual property, trade secrets, etc., have BYOD policies that forbid even carrying personal electronic gadgets onto company property, let alone using them at work. Similar restrictive classroom policies can have a beneficial outcome in preparing our electronically distracted students for the "real" world.

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