Communication Currents

Instructor’s Corner: Can Mobile Devices Encourage Positive Communicative Behaviors in the Classroom?

June 1, 2016
Instructional Communication

Mobile devices have drastically changed the way people communicate in recent years. Multicommunication—such as tweeting while talking to friend —is commonplace. Keri K. Stephens of The University of Texas at Austin has always been interested in how people use multiple technologies to communicate. Several years ago, for example, she examined how people multicommunicate in meetings at work.

People behave this way at home and at work, and students take this behavior into the classroom. While most assume that students are “goofing off” in class when they use a device, Stephens says this isn’t necessarily the case. She and Gabriel E. Pantoja of Texas A&M University have co-authored a study that examines multicommunication behaviors in the classroom.

There is growing evidence that certain types of mobile device behavior in the classroom—especially texting and spending time on Facebook—are detrimental to learning. However, Stephens and Pantoja found that certain factors, such as a student’s individual multitasking desires, active participation, and motivation, can lead to positive communicative behaviors in the classroom.

The Study  

Stephens and Pantoja identified specific mobile device behaviors students use in class and took a closer look at the relationship between academic motivation and those communicative behaviors. The authors used self-determination theory to explain why students are motivated to engage in different types of multicommunication practices—some productive and some destructive. They defined academic motivation as people’s intentional behavior to engage in actions that allow them to achieve their desired academic outcomes. Multicommunication was defined as the behavior of using technology to “engage in two or more overlapping, synchronous conversations.”  

The authors recruited 292 students from classes that ranged from Engineering to Physics, Interpersonal Communication, International Finance, and more. Sixty percent of participants identified as female and 40 percent as male, and all were from a large university in the Southwest United States. The mean age of the participants was 21.

Why Do Students Use Their Phones in Class? 

The study findings demonstrated that different types of academic motivations are related to specific multicommunication behaviors in the classroom. The research also identified different types of multicommunicating behaviors in the classroom environment and provided a nuanced perspective on what students are doing when they use their mobile devices in class.

Intrinsic Motivation and Multitasking Preferences. People whose behaviors are regulated internally are intrinsically motivated, and students who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to “engage in proactive learning behaviors for the pleasure and satisfaction they receive from accomplishing the task,” according to a previous study. Stephens and Pantoja’s findings supported previous research and found that intrinsic motivation leads to increased multicommunication among students for the purpose of understanding class content, influencing others’ understanding, and seeking or providing social support.

Past research also suggests that people’s individual multitasking preferences can predict multicommunication behaviors. Findings from this study support those findings, suggesting that students who like to multitask are more likely to pick up their phones during class to engage in behaviors that will enhance their understanding of class content. But, why do students pick up their phones for other reasons, such as influencing or supporting others? Stephens and Pantoja say that a student may be more likely to use their mobile device in class for those reasons when he or she is both intrinsically motivated and likes to multitask.  

Amotivation and Class Distractions. Students who want to multitask, but are amotivated, are more likely to use their phones to engage in classroom distraction behaviors. The authors define Amotivation “as a lack of motivation, or the feeling that external forces fully control individuals’ behaviors.” Students who are amotivated view their academic performance as being controlled by others, and they believe they have little control over their own learning. “Our findings in the current study, combined with understanding more productive forms of multicommunicating, could provide guidance for instructors to structure classroom environments where students feel more empowered,” the authors write.

Wanting to Be Available. Stephens and Pantoja also found that one extrinsic motivation for students to use mobile phones in the classroom was the desire to be available to others who want to reach them. When extrinsic motivation is combined with a desire to multitask, students are more likely to multicommunicate to be available to others. 

Class Policy May Not Work. The authors also looked at whether classroom policies influence student multicommunicating practices. From the findings, it appears that having a policy against using technology in class only influences students to use multicommunicating for understanding less often. “Our findings tentatively suggest that policies could keep students from engaging in productive multicommunicating behavior of gaining understanding, but policies have limited influence on distracting multicommunicating behaviors or the desire to remain available during class,” Stephens and Pantoja explain. 


This study continues an important conversation currently taking place among Instructional Communication scholars and experts. Students who have a high desire to be available during class will likely continue to use their phones. With this knowledge, should instructors resist jumping to conclusions when students pull out their cell phones in class? While the use of mobile devices may seem to be disrupting the classroom environment, it is also possible that an intrinsically motivated student is using them to gain understanding of classroom content. “Unfortunately,” the authors note, “there is no ‘on-task’ or ‘off-task’ flag that appears on the back of a mobile device to alert instructors to the type of behavior occurring in class.”

About the author (s)

Gabriel E. Pantoja

Texas A&M University

Doctoral Candidate

Keri K. Stephens

University of Texas at Austin

Associate Professor