UNL study shows students play with phones in class — a lot

The typical college student plays with his or her digital device an average of 11 times a day while in class, according to a new study by a UNL media professor. (File photo)

The typical college student plays with his or her digital device an average of 11 times a day while in class, according to a new study by a UNL professor.

More than 80 percent admit that their use of smart phones, tablets and laptops can interfere with their learning. More than a fourth say their grades suffer as a result.

Bernard “Barney” McCoy, associate professor of broadcasting, embarked upon his study after launching his teaching career seven years ago and noticing the instructional challenges presented by students’ digital devices.

From the front of his classroom on multimedia, he often saw the smart phones creeping out. The view from the back of a classroom while a colleague taught Mass Media Principles was equally telling.

“They’ve got their laptops open, but they’re not always taking notes,” McCoy said. "Some might have two screens open – Facebook and their notes.”

Rather than rely on anecdotal evidence, McCoy decided to try to quantify how often college students tune out their instructors in favor of tweets and texts. During fall 2012, he surveyed 777 students at six universities in five states about their classroom use of digital devices for non-instructional purposes. He also asked the students how often they are distracted by others using digital devices and for their perspective on how digital devices should be policed.

“I don’t think students necessarily think it’s problematic,” McCoy said. “They think it’s part of their lives.”

The students, from UNL and the University of Nebraska at Omaha in Nebraska, Morningside College in Iowa, the University of North Carolina, the University of Kansas and the University of Mississippi, were recruited for the computer survey by classroom instructors via email and personal contact. Respondents were not asked to reveal their name or institution, though colleges were identified through Internet addresses associated with the survey responses.

Here’s how often respondents said they used their digital devices for non-classroom purposes during a typical day:

  • 1 to 3 times per day: 35 percent

  • 4 to 10 times per day: 27 percent

  • 11 to 30 times per day: 16 percent

  • more than 30 times per day: 15 percent

  • Never: less than 8 percent.

Percentages equal more than 100 percent because of rounding.

Nearly 86 percent said they were texting, 68 percent reported they were checking email, 66 percent said they using social networks, 38 percent said they were surfing the web and 8 percent said they were playing a game.

McCoy said he was surprised by one response: 79 percent of students said they used their digital device to check the time.

“That’s a generational thing to me – a lot of young people don’t wear watches.”

The top advantages of using digital devices for non-class purposes, according to students, is staying connected (70 percent), fighting boredom (55 percent) and doing related classwork (49 percent).

The most commonly cited disadvantages were that they don’t pay attention (90 percent), miss instruction (80 percent), or get called out by their instructor (32 percent). More than a fourth said they lose grade points because of their digital habits.

However, students downplayed the distraction caused by digital devices. Fewer than 5 percent considered it a “big” or “very big” distraction when classmates used digital devices and fewer than 5 percent considered their own use of a digital device to be a “big” or “very big” distraction. However, more than half the students said they were “a little distracted” when other students pulled out their devices and nearly 46 percent said they were “a little” distracted by their own use of digital devices.

Less than 17 percent said the use of digital devices was not a distraction.

Students do not want to leave their smartphones at home, however. More than 91 percent said they opposed a classroom ban on digital devices. Their preferred policy (72 percent) for dealing with digital distraction is for the instructor to speak to the offender. They also preferred a first-offense warning, followed by penalties (65 percent) for those caught using devices for non-classroom purposes.

McCoy said digital distraction is a challenge with which instructors will continue to wrestle. A 2012 study showed that two thirds of students age 18-29 own a smartphone, which gives the mobile access to the internet as well as texting and email capabilities. A 2013 study by Experian Marketing Services showed that 18- to 24-year-olds send and receive an average of 3,853 text messages per month.

“It’s become automatic behavior on the part of so many people – they do it without even thinking about it.”

He said he asks students to be aware that using their devices can distract others and to step outside the room if it’s a true emergency and they need to be connected. He limits the length of his lectures and gives students periodic breaks so they can update Facebook or send a tweet. He also tries to get them to use their phones as part of their classroom activities – asking them to look up information, for example.

“I can guarantee you even when I do those things, it’s still not going to keep students from having a text conversation. They’ll multi-task while they’re doing it.”

McCoy’s study was published online this week in the Journal of Media Education.

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