Survey: Nearly Half of Students Distracted by Technology

A recent study analyzed the perspectives of both students and instructors in regards to use of technology in the classroom setting.

July 10, 2019
 
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A recent survey found the use of technology in class, such as laptops or phones, for noneducational purposes was distracting to almost half of students, while others surveyed believe technology in the classroom is unavoidable.

The study was published in the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and surveyed 478 students and 36 instructors at the University of Waterloo.

Of the undergraduate students surveyed, 49 percent said the use of technology for reasons not related to class, or “off-task” use, was distracting to them. However, students generally said they’ve used technology for off-task purposes regardless.

“Students actually know and realize that the use of technology has a negative impact on people around them when used for off-task purposes like browsing the web,” Elena Neiterman, a Waterloo teaching fellow and one of the authors of the study, said. “They still feel like [technology] is still necessary when the classes are not engaging enough. Like, for example, being in a large lecture hall or when the professor is what they call ‘boring.’”

The survey showed the use of social media in a classroom setting had become normalized, and students saw off-task activity less negatively because most students were engaged in some sort of off-task activity at some point during class. Neiterman said the survey revealed some students felt that to allow for a brief distraction when they felt bored would help them feel more engaged for the rest of the class period. Most students surveyed said they saw it as their right to use the technology in class.

“They felt it would be useful for them to maybe do their own thing for a couple minutes and then come back to the class,” Neiterman said. “[Students] also felt if they were too overwhelmed by the information … they would get off the topic and go browse or text somebody and take a mental break.”

In particular, the study focused on the perspectives on instructors regarding technology use. While teachers and students were found to have similarly positive views on the use of technology for class-related activities, teachers obviously held negative views about off-task activities. Sixty-eight percent of instructors said they felt bothered by student cellphone use, however, only 32 percent were bothered by laptop use.

Among the instructors surveyed, general methods of dealing with technology use in class included ignoring and tolerating it, minimizing it by explaining to students the detriments, or utilizing it in classroom activity. Twenty-three percent of instructors surveyed said they incorporated technology into the curriculum. Many instructors surveyed said students using off-task technology had become more brazen, which was seen as insulting.

The survey also asked respondents to consider who was responsible for limiting off-task use in the classroom, and some students felt it was the instructor’s job to make the class engaging enough to deincentivize off-task technology use. Many instructors dismissed the idea by pointing out it would be an uphill battle for any professor to compete with a social media network designed to attract attention.

A study released last year found a causal link between lower test scores and the uses of cellphones and laptops. The study suggested students were wrong to believe they could divide their attention between technology and class lectures, as technology impairs their ability to retain information from the class.

Neiterman said instructors surveyed recognized the fact that technology wasn’t going anywhere, particularly because of its use in increasing accessibility. Nonetheless, many instructors who felt negatively about off-task use said they would continue to try to inform their students about the negatives of divided attention.

“Instructors really felt difficulties about this off-task use,” Neiterman said. “They tried to explain to students to attempt to minimize use, but many said it was a difficult challenge to take on.”

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