It’s logical to assume that having a phone out during class would be distracting to the person using the phone. But what about other students in the class? Can a seemingly minor distraction like the occasional vibration or flashing screen from a nearby device affect others’ learning?
A recent study performed at Rutgers University is making a strong case that yes, devices in the classroom impact learning. Researchers discovered a disconcerting correlation between the presence of cell phones and other devices in the class room and lower grades. The study, published in Educational Psychology, involved 118 cognitive psychology students signed up for two different sections of the same course. In one section of the course, students were permitted to have phones, laptops, and tablets in the classroom, and in the other course, electronics weren’t allowed.
Although it’s a relatively small study and there may have been other variables impacting results, such as time of day the class was taken or time of day exams were administered, the outcome is worth considering. The results were surprising for a number of reasons:
First, the lower grades from the class where devices were allowed were statistically significant—they were 5 percent lower than in the class not using devices. However, the lower grades didn’t come until later in the semester when students took their finals. The students in each class performed about the same on quizzes taken throughout the course. Researchers hypothesize that the presence of the devices had a negative impact on long-term information retention.
Second, students in the class where devices were allowed were asked to track their electronics usage—whether they used a device during class and whether or not it was for academic purposes. And researchers discovered that even students from the devices-allowed class who did not use a device during class still performed worse on end-of-course exams than those from the banned-devices classes. It appears that the mere presence of devices in class, even when used by others, is enough of a distraction that it has a negative impact on long-term retention of course material.
Given the ubiquity of electronic devices these days, this is something schools and teachers should consider. Lead researcher Arnold Glass, a professor of psychology at Rutgers-New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Sciences, suggested professors “explain to students the damaging effect of distractions on retention – not only on themselves, but for the whole class.” Good advice, especially since students choosing not to use a device are apparently at the mercy of others who do.
For my kids, and even for myself, I want to know more about the effects of the presence of screens on long-term memory. I’m as guilty as anyone else of having my phone at my elbow competing for my attention in virtually all situations. How much am I missing? How much am I forgetting? And for our kids who’ve never known a life without screens, how many memories are they sacrificing down the road because of the device they currently hold in their hands?
My home may not be a classroom and I may not be administering exams on dinnertime banter from three months prior, but, for me, this small study has made an impact. My family already has rules about not checking phones during meals or when carrying on a conversation, and I’ve even completely turned off virtually all notifications—my phone doesn’t even vibrate.
But even with those measures in place, I admit, that shiny black rectangle still calls to me to be picked up no matter what I’m doing. And I do feel like some of my memories are not as clear as they should be. I do feel like having my phone in my hand takes at least part of my mind out of the present moment.
Screens are here to stay, I think everyone can agree on this. But as more studies like this come to light, parents might consider talking with their kids about the importance of having moments that exist entirely separate from their devices. They just might get some great long-term memories out of it.
Kristen Mae is a proud indie novelist with three books published, all of which hit bestseller on Amazon. She blogs infrequently at Abandoning Pretense and writes for various media outlets about parenthood, relationships, and current events.