Every professor knows the signs. The furtive peeks at cell phones. The ping of unsilenced Twitter alerts. The guilty — or worse, unrepentant — look when a student’s caught shopping Wish in the middle of a class discussion.
Students are distracted, and technology in the classroom is the cause. But what can colleges do about it?
What research is revealing about technology and distraction in the college classroom
Students learn less when they use laptops in class.
Conventional wisdom says that there’s nothing inherently wrong with laptops in college classrooms, and that driven students can benefit from using them to take detailed notes. However, students really do retain more when they take notes in longhand compared to a laptop, one 2014 study found. Sixty-seven students were told to watch a TED talk and take notes — half in pen, and half with laptops without Internet access — and later were tested on their grasp of the subject. Laptop users scored slightly better on factual recall, but significantly worse on conceptual understanding of the topic. That’s why University of Michigan professor Susan Dynarski instituted a laptop ban in her classroom.
Students are often using devices for non-class-related purposes.
Professor James M. Lang tells the story of a student who excelled in class and yet seemed inattentive. He realized she was concealing her cell phone inside her purse, at an angle that allowed her to see incoming messages from friends. The discovery troubled Lang, not because it was unusual but because so many students did the same. And “a roomful of half-present students seriously detracts from what we can accomplish on any given day,” he wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Students justify their use of devices in the classroom.
College students’ attitude toward their use of devices is defiant: Yes, we use them all the time, they acknowledge, but we’re not going to stop. A recent University of Nebraska-Lincoln study found that nearly 30 percent of students believed they could use their devices without impairing their learning. The rest were aware of how technology affected their ability to learn. “But they have justified that tradeoff,” said study author Barney McCoy, associate professor of broadcasting and journalism. “It’s not so much a sense of entitlement; it’s their desire to be connected and not wanting to miss a message.”
Teaching strategies for distracted students
What can college professors do to regain students’ attention?
The most obvious solution is also the most controversial: banning laptops, tablets, and phones in the classroom. Don’t expect this to be a popular move with students. In the UNL study, students were “overwhelmingly opposed” to a ban on digital devices in the classroom. Dynarski’s New York Times opinion piece sparked an immediate backlash from professors and students who argued that laptops aid learning, and are indispensable for students with certain disabilities. Dynarski acknowledges that allowing only students with learning disabilities to use laptops equates to making them reveal their disability to the entire class.
McCoy, the author of the UNL study, says his findings suggest that both students and teachers need to change their ways. Students must learn more effective techniques for resisting the urge to check devices constantly, while professors have to find new ways to keep college students interested and engaged.
The best way forward, some say, is for professors to tailor their technology policies to the needs of their students and their subject. Richard Godden, professor of English at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, tells Inside Higher Ed that he encourages students to think critically about how they use their computers, and also asks them to close their laptops when the class is engaged in discussion. Lang uses online polling to encourage participation in class, allowing him to track, analyze, and talk about the responses in real time.
Professors — and students — must first understand what distraction really means, Lang says. Using technology is not a distraction in itself. Instead, distraction occurs when something blocks our efforts to achieve a goal that matters. Thinking about his student with the concealed cell phone, Lang asked himself, “What goal had I established for Kate’s learning that day? How had I created an environment that supported her ability to achieve that goal? And perhaps most important — assuming that the class had a learning goal that mattered for her — did she know about it?”