Communication Currents

Mobile Phones in Class Can Help and Hurt Student Learning

August 1, 2015
Instructional Communication

In many classrooms across the United States, we see students bringing and using their mobile phones. Certainly some students may use these devices for course-related purposes, like taking notes; however, others may use their phones to communicate with friends through social networking sites, text messages, or messaging apps. As a result, we became interested in understanding what impact this behavior has on student learning and note taking. Specifically, we wanted to examine if using mobile phones in class helped or hurt student learning, and what factors might influence that effect.

So far, we have conducted two studies of this behavior. For both, we set up an experiment to collect information. Our first study focused on messages that were unrelated to class content. Messages unrelated to the class might be Facebook posts or text messages that have nothing to do with class content. In that study, we also looked at how frequently students received messages and what impact that has on learning. Ultimately, we found students who did not use their phones scored 13 percentage points (i.e., a letter grade and a half) higher on a test, did 62 percent better at taking notes, and remembered more information from a lecture than students who were frequently using their mobile devices.

Our current study expands on this topic by including messages that were related to course content and the difference between responding to messages and creating new messages. Similar to our past study, we developed an experiment that allowed us to compare different combinations of message content (related or unrelated to class content), how frequently students engaged with messages, and if they simply responded to a message or created original messages (i.e., Twitter). Everyone in our study watched the same video lecture, took notes on that lecture, and took two tests of student learning: multiple choice and free recall.

The results from our study tell us an interesting story about what appears to affect student learning and note taking. Since the only difference between the groups in our study was how they used their mobile devices, we can compare how each group scored on the tests of student learning and note taking to determine what effect this usage has. For the multiple-choice test, students who did not use their mobile devices (our control group) and students who responded to text messages related to the video lecture scored higher than students who interacted with content not related to the video lecture or students who were sending original messages (i.e., Twitter). Put another way, when students either abstained from using their phones or responded to messages about content in the lecture, they scored up to 14 percentage points higher (a letter grade and half) than the students creating or responding to unrelated content. 

When we look at how these groups scored on the free-recall test, which asked students to write down as much content as they could remember from the lecture, we found a similar result. Students who did not use their phones or responded to text messages about the lecture outperformed the other groups. For example, students who did not use their phones scored 70 percent higher than students who were responding to unrelated messages and 53 percent higher than students creating tweets unrelated to class content. The group that responded to text messages related to the lecture scored 68 percent higher than the group responding to text messages unrelated to the class lecture.

We also found the same pattern when we looked at note taking. The control group and relevant texting group each scored higher—37 to 58 percent higher—on note taking than all of the other groups. Lastly, when we looked at how often students created or responded to messages, we generally found the groups doing these activities more frequently tended to score lower on each test of student learning.

Based on our results, we can offer recommendations for students, parents, and teachers. For students, we think the best option is to not use phones during class. If students are using their phone for note-taking purposes, we recommend talking with their instructor on the first day of class to see if this is something they recommend or not. We generally recommend students avoid using their phones for any reason not associated with the classroom.

For teachers, we recommend developing a classroom policy that clearly explains how students should or should not use their mobile devices in the classroom. Such a policy is in line with research conducted by communication scholars Finn and Ledbetter. Another option is to jointly develop a classroom technology policy with students, one in which their point of view and that of the instructor are taken into account. Ideally, instructors will develop ways of integrating mobile devices and messaging into their classroom to, perhaps, enhance student learning. However, we should be cautious and avoid the temptation to quickly integrate technology into the curriculum without first examining what impact this integration might have on students.

For parents, our findings do seem to indicate that certain ways of using mobile devices in class might be detrimental to learning. Parents can serve a key role in modifying this behavior by setting clear expectations with their children and modeling good mobile phone behaviors.

Whether we like it or not, students will continue to bring, and likely use, their mobile devices while in class. Continued study of this behavior and the impact it has on student learning is certainly needed; however, our research indicates that using mobile devices for reasons that do not align with course content may have a negative impact on student learning and ultimately may hurt students’ grades.

About the author (s)

Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff

Miami University-Middletown

Assistant Professor