Cell Phones and Attention: Outcomes that affect learning both in the classroom and at home

Written by Dr. Althea Bauernschmidt and Dr. Adam Brown

Cell phones are one of the biggest contributors to multitasking. Those fantastic devices that allow you to connect with the world are excellent at distracting you from the task at hand.

From our previous posts, you’ll already know that multitasking does not allow you to complete multiple tasks simultaneously, instead when you think you are multitasking you are actually switching between tasks. This task switching comes at a cost, including making more errors and increasing reaction time. This cost is amplified if the tasks are complex or unfamiliar (Rubinstein, Meyer, & Evans, 2001).
Cell phones (and really any attention-grabbing media device like laptops or tablets) force multitasking because we’ve trained ourselves to respond to them. It’s hard to ignore an incoming text message or tweet notification. In fact, these notifications harm our attention even if we don’t respond to them (Stothart, Mitchum, Yehnert, 2015). (Next month we’ll be focusing on selective attention and how these devices harm our ability to focus on one task at a time.)

Despite the fact that cell phones lead to multitasking which ultimately impairs learning, the majority of students not only use cell phones in class, but feel that cell phone use in class is acceptable. In a survey of 400 college students over 80% said they regularly use their cellphones in class (Barry & Westfall, 2015). Furthermore, almost 75% of students thought that checking their cell phones during class was acceptable or sometimes acceptable.

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One could make the argument that because students have grown up with cell phones they are better able to multitask with them. However, students who grew up in the digital age and who are used to frequent digital media perform no better at instructional multitasking than do those who are naïve  to the digital world (Wood, Zivcakova, Gentile, Archer, De Pasquale, & Nosko, 2011). Even though students are used to cell phones and social media, they are not necessarily better at multitasking with them.

Trying to pay attention and learn? Turn off your cell phone. Better yet, put it in another room.

References

Barry, M. J. & Westfall, A. (2015). Dial D for Distraction: The making and breaking of cell phone policies in the college classroom. College Teaching63, 62-71.

Rubinstein, J.S., Meyer, D.E., & Evans, J.E. (2001). Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 763-797.

Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., Yehnert, C., (2015). The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41(4), 893-897.

Wood E, Zivcakova, L., Gentile, P., Archer, K., De Pasquale, D., Nosko, A. (2011) Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning. Computers & Education, 58, 365-374.

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