Just having your cell phone in your possession can impair your learning, study suggests

New research on college students suggests that the mere presence of a cell phone can impair learning during a lecture. The study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, found cell phones tended to reduce attention and memory — even when they weren’t used.

“This topic interests me for a couple different reasons,” said Ian M. McDonough, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and corresponding author of the study.

“First, I think it is important to connect cognitive psychology principles to real world problems. So when my colleague (Dr. Seungyeon Lee) approached me with the idea of better understanding how cell phones impact learning in the classroom, I thought this would be a worthwhile problem to tackle,”

“Second, as someone who teaches regularly myself, I do worry about how well my students are learning in the presence of their digital technology like cell phones and laptops,” he told PsyPost.

“While a surge of research has suggested that technology generally impairs learning if not used directly for learning-related activities, cell phones and laptops are likely just going to become more frequent in the classroom. Thus, we need to understand the factors that impact learning in the presence of technology rather than to forcibly take away students’ technology.”

For their experiment, the researchers had 381 college students watch a videotaped lecture and take a short quiz about it afterward. The lecture was a 20-minute TED talk given by Dr. Sam Richards called “A Radical Experiment in Empathy.”

Some of the students were allowed to use their cell phones, some were told not to use it and to put it into silent mode, and some were not allowed to possess a cell phone at all. In addition, four text messages were sent to the participants during the lecture.

The researchers found that students tended to perform worse on the quiz when they had their cell phone and when they scored higher on a measure of nomophobia — the fear of being without access to one’s cell phone. The same was true of students who were noticeably distracted by the texts. The researchers found the effects were most pronounced 10 to 15 minutes into the lecture.

“Having mobile technology in the classroom has multiple and independent negative effects on learning. The mere presence of a cell phone can be distracting for both the cell phone user and students sitting around the cell phone user, not to mention the obvious distraction if someone gets a text or phone call (even if on silent),” McDonough explained.

“In addition, people’s own emotional state, such as the need to feel connected to others via their mobile device, has a reliable and negative impact on attention and learning. Thus, teachers and students alike need to work together to find solutions to enhance learning without sacrificing one’s learning ability and emotional health. This problem will not be easy to fix, especially as students become more emotionally reliant on their cell phones or other mobile devices.”

However, the study has some limitations.

“First, the studies we have conducted did not occur in real classrooms where students’ grades are at risk, but rather in a controlled environment where performing poorly on the quiz did not have much of a consequence,” McDonough said. “In a real classroom, students might be more motivated to pay attention and retain the information. In addition, they would have the opportunity to re-study the material if they did miss out on some information.”

“Another caveat is that our simulated lectures only lasted 20 minutes because they were in the form of a TED talk. Real classrooms last much longer than 20 minutes, which might give students the ability to re-gain focus in later parts of the lecture. On the other hand, TED talks might sometimes be more engaging than classrooms, and so students might be even more negatively impacted by cell phones in a real classroom. More studies are needed!”

“We also did not test other types of lecture materials or the difficulty of the content. Perhaps, some material is so engaging or easy that students would be less distracted by their mobile devices,” McDonough remarked.

“I would like to know more about how students perceive mobile devices as being a distraction in class. Are students aware of the large distraction that cell phones pose in the classroom, even if it is not their own cell phone? If so, why do they choose to continue to use them in the classroom and do they have any ideas as to how to work with instructors to minimize the negative impact of cell phones on learning?”

The findings could help explain why students who use their cell phones more often tend to have lower grade point averages (GPA). But there may be solutions besides getting rid of cell phones entirely.

“I could see that complete removal of cell phones (even if better for student learning) might not be the most ideal solution for students, but maybe they have clever ideas that instructors could implement,” McDonough explained. “One app that I think is great is PocketPoints, which rewards students with points by keeping their cell phones ‘locked’ while on campus. They can then redeem these points for food or clothing later on. These types of apps might be a good middle-ground where students can still have their cell phones, but are immediately rewarded by not using them in class.”

The study, “The effect of cell phones on attention and learning: The influences of time, distraction, and nomophobia“, was authored by Jessica S. Mendoza, Benjamin C. Pody, Seungyeon Lee, Minsung Kim, and Ian M. McDonough.