Yesterday I said to one of my students that it was pointless to sit in my class if you are so busy with your phone. He was so busy it even distracted me. I should have mentioned this new study – a combination of a meta-review and new data -, but I only read if afterwards. But let’s be honest: we’ve known this for quite a while.
The study in short:
- Media use (MU) and academic performance (AP) studies omit subject area comparison.
- Sample populations tend to be biased toward social science programs.•
- Data show differences in the type and frequency of MU across subject areas.
- Differences between MU and AP correlations were found for different subject areas.
- MU is a stronger predictor of AP for students in the soft sciences.
The researchers say it shouldn’t be surprising that university lecturers are encouraged to develop blended learning initiatives and bring tech — videos, podcasts, Facebook pages, etc. — into the classroom more and more to offer students the enhanced experiences enabled by digital media.
They warn, however, that an important effect of these initiatives has been to establish media use during university lectures as the norm.
“Studies by ourselves and researchers across the world show that students constantly use their phones when they are in class.
“But here’s the kicker: if you think they are following the lecture slides or engaging in debates about the topic you are mistaken. In fact, this is hardly ever the case. When students use their phones during lectures they do it to communicate with friends, engage in social networks, watch YouTube videos or just browse around the web to follow their interests.”
The researchers say there are two primary reasons why this form of behaviour is problematic from a cognitive control and learning perspective.
“The first is that when we engage in multitasking our performance on the primary task suffers. Making sense of lecture content is very difficult when you switch attention to your phone every five minutes. A strong body of evidence supports this, showing that media use during lectures is associated with lower academic performance.”
“The second reason is that it harms students’ ability to concentrate on any particular thing for an extended period of time. They become accustomed to switching to alternative streams of stimuli at increasingly short intervals. The moment the lecture fails to engage or becomes difficult to follow, the phones come out.”
The researchers say awareness of this trend has prompted some lecturers, even at leading tech-oriented universities like MIT in the United States, to declare their lectures device-free in an attempt to cultivate engagement, attentiveness and, ultimately, critical thinking skills among their students.
“No one can deny that mobile computing devices make our lives easier and more fun in a myriad of ways. But, in the face of all the connectedness and entertainment they offer, we should be mindful of the costs.”
The researchers encourage educational policy makers and lecturers, in particular, to consider the implications of their decisions with a much deeper awareness of the dynamics between technology use and the cognitive functions which enable us to learn.
Abstract of the paper:
The current generation of university students display an increasing propensity for media multitasking behaviour with digital devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones. A growing body of empirical evidence has shown that this behaviour is associated with reduced academic performance. In this study it is proposed that the subject area within which an individual is situated may influence the relationship between media multitasking and academic performance. This proposition is evaluated, firstly, by means of a meta-review of prior studies in this area and, secondly, through a survey-based study of 1678 students at a large university in South Africa. Our findings suggest that little or no attention has been paid to variations between students from different subject areas in previous work and, based on our data, that subject area does influence the relationship between media use and academic performance. The study found that while a significant negative correlation exists between in-lecture media use and academic performance for students in the Arts and Social Sciences, the same pattern is not observable for students in the faculties of Engineering, Economic and Management Sciences, and Medical and Health Sciences.