College students who frequently text message during class have difficulty staying attentive to classroom lectures and consequently risk having poor learning outcomes, finds a new study accepted for publication in the National Communication Association’s journal Communication Education.
“We know from our past research that college students who are regular text users habitually engage in text messaging during class lectures,” said the study’s principal author, Fang-Yi Flora Wei, Ph.D., assistant professor of broadcast communications at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. “Now we see that in-class texting partially interferes with a student’s ability to pay attention, which prior studies show is necessary for effective cognitive learning.”
In the new study, University of Pittsburgh-Bradford students who were enrolled in selected undergraduate general education classes completed an anonymous questionnaire at the end of the semester. The questionnaire asked about the class that they attended immediately before their general education class. Students reported how many text messages they sent or received during the class, on average.
Participants also rated themselves on specific learning variables regarding their class. These variables included self-regulation, which Wei defined as “self-control in directing one's learning process”; sustained attention; and outcomes of cognitive learning—both self-reported grades and the perceived amount learned.
Because it is difficult to demonstrate that texting alone can have a direct impact on students’ cognitive learning, Wei said, she and her co-investigators used path model analysis to describe the relationships between texting, as a “mediator” or intervening variable, and cognitive learning.
Among 190 completed questionnaires from students who attended a lecture-based class lasting 50 or 75 minutes, the average number of text messages students viewed in class was 2.6, Wei’s team reported. Students sent, on average, 2.4 texts while in class. The researchers found no difference between the two class lengths in the extent of texting or students’ sustained attention to classroom learning.
They did find a direct positive relationship between self-regulation and sustained attention, with students who possessed a high level of self-regulation being more likely to keep their attention focused on classroom learning. In turn, sustained attention to classroom education was positively related to improved cognitive learning, in terms of better grades and especially the perceived amount of learning, the authors reported.
These highly self-regulated students were less likely to text message in class than students with lower levels of self-regulation, Wei said. On the other hand, students who frequently texted during class were less likely to sustain attention to their instructor. The results suggest that texting diverts students’ focus from the main learning task, the authors write in their article.
“College students may believe that they are capable of performing multitasking behaviors during their classroom learning, such as listening to the lecture and texting simultaneously,” Wei said. “But the real concern is not whether students can learn under a multitasking condition, but how well they can learn if they cannot sustain their full attention on classroom instruction.”
Students should consider limiting their texting during class, Wei suggests. She said she does not think that university bans on texting during class would be as effective as instructors using interactive instructional techniques or other strategies to keep students’ attention.
The University of Pittsburgh at Bradford does not have a policy banning mobile phones during class, according to the authors.
The article, “Rethinking College Students’ Self-Regulation and Sustained Attention: Does Text Messaging During Class Influence Cognitive Learning,” is currently available online and will appear in the July 2012 print issue of the Communication Education. Co-authors are Y. Ken Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor of management and education, and Michael Klausner, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology, both at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford.
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