College Students Fare Worse In Classes That Permit Phone Use — Even If They Don’t Use Them

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — College students hoping to start the spring semester off on the right foot ought to consider keeping their phones in their dorm rooms during class. A new study finds that students perform worse on final exams if they are allowed access to a smartphone or tablet for non-academic purposes during lectures, compared to students who don’t have access to mobile devices.

In fact, researchers from Rutgers University say students who didn’t use mobile devices during lectures where they were permitted phone use still performed worse than pupils in mobile-restricted lectures. The finding shows just how the mere presence or availability of phone can be detrimental.

For the study, the researchers performed an in-class experiment to quantify the detriment of dividing one’s attention between electronic devices and the instructor during class on college students’ performance on in-lecture tests and end-of-term exams.

The test involved 118 cognitive psychology students at Rutgers during one term of their class. The researchers banned phones, laptops, and tablets in half the lectures and allowed in the other half. Students were asked to record whether they used their devices for non-academic purposes during lecture time.

The results showed that allowing devices didn’t lead to lowered scores in comprehension tests during the lectures, but they did find students had lower end-of-term scores by five percent on average — half a letter grade. Worsened scores were also seen in students who didn’t report using their devices in the lectures permitting them, perhaps because of the distraction from those who did.

The researchers say their findings are their first to demonstrate that the greatest effect of divided attention in a classroom setting is the hampering of long-term retention. Students remembered fewer elements of their studies after completing them in classes that allowed phones to be present.

“These findings should alert the many dedicated students and instructors that dividing attention is having an insidious effect that is impairing their exam performance and final grade,” sys lead author Arnold Glass in a statement. “To help manage the use of devices in the classroom, teachers should explain to students the damaging effect of distractions on retention – not only for themselves, but for the whole class.”

The study was published in the journal Educational Psychology.

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