April 24th, 2013

Tough Questions on Texting in the Classroom

By:

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.

As I note in The Teaching Professor, this article is a great resource. It contains references to other studies documenting the use of texting and cell phones in college classes, and it features an excellent discussion of the physiological reasons why the human brain is not good at multitasking, despite the fact 47% of the students in this survey believe they can text and follow a lecture at the same time.

However, the real value of this research is that the findings and the authors raise tough questions about texting. Does it make sense to ban texting if students ignore the ban and teachers back away from enforcing it? Can a ban be enforced? How about in a large course, can it be enforced then? Should it be enforced? The researchers note that at one time most faculty objected when students brought food and drink into class and now that’s accepted in many classrooms. What are the costs of enforcing a “no texting” policy? Public altercations with students that erode the climate for learning in the classroom? But texting itself erodes the learning atmosphere of classroom, doesn’t it?

What about taking the “if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them” approach? The researchers cite a number of references in which faculty describe ways and means of using texting to enhance the learning experience. I worry that texting for legitimate reasons serves to validate its use for any reason.

Does texting show a lack of respect? Perhaps, but are students doing it because they want to disrespect the teacher? Or are they texting simply because they do it everywhere else and don’t see the classroom as being any different. I regularly see faculty texting during my workshops. Am I being disrespected?

Here’s a student comment (cited in the article) that raises the toughest question of all: “For me, I only text when I am bored, so if the teacher sees that maybe they can change their teaching style.” (p. 36) The researchers write, “Given the research on multitasking and brain function, the real question is not whether texting in class lowers academic performance, but why does a class not produce enough cognitive load that texting would disrupt it?” (p. 36) In other words, why isn’t the content in our courses interesting and challenging enough that students realize if they text, they will miss something important?

No, I’m not naïve—too old for that. I know that a divine visitation could be occurring in class and some students would still be texting. Moreover, not everything we teach, not even the stuff that that students really need to know, titillates with excitement. Sometimes we have to pay attention when it’s boring. And most of the time our attention cannot be divided for learning to occur. Somehow students must confront the fact that they can’t be texting, listening to the teacher, and taking good notes. They’re going to do one well and the others poorly, just like the rest of us when we try to multitask. Late last year I tried to listen to a webinar on Medicare while cleaning my desk and writing notes for a blog post. I later had to spend hours trying to rectify the mistakes I made when I signed up for Medicare.

The questions about texting are tough because they don’t have easy answers. I don’t think there’s one simple policy that solves the problem and constructively resolves the issues. But I don’t think that excuses us from confronting the questions.

Reference: Clayson, D. E. and Haley, D. A. (2013). An introduction to multitasking and texting: Prevalence and impact on grades and GPA in marketing. Journal of Marketing Education, 35 (1), 26-40.