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Walk through any campus library and you see students hunkered down in their preferred corner or comfy chair with their laptops and cell phones in hand to aid in the process of cramming for their next exam. But are they studying or goofing off? Are they capable of actually staying on (work-related) task?

While these students are tech-savvy and have plenty of gizmos, they may not be as distracted by these technologies as some may think, according to a University of Washington study, "Balancing Act: How College Students Manage Technology While in the Library during Crunch Time," by Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg. The study reveals that students are taking to the library as a place of refuge -- and their laptops and cell phones aren’t necessarily the pesky distractions some assume them to be.

“It’s not a multitasking study,” said Head, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Information School. “It’s a study about how students are managing the ubiquitous technology in their lives.”

The study includes interviews with 560 students at 10 different institutions — ranging from four-year universities to community colleges — who were studying in their libraries for final exams last spring. Results showed that students take a “less is more” approach when exam pressure starts bearing down. Students use technology to help them study and to communicate with others, the report found. And students are using the library less for its traditional resources — books, journals, etc. — and more as a place to get away from the hectic world around them.

But the study suggests students actually study — and not just update Facebook pages, instant message and play their favorite Pandora stations.

The study’s key findings included:

  • 85 percent only had 1 or 2 information technology (IT) devices running when interviewed
  • 61 percent only had 1 or 2 websites open and in use, most of which were being used for course work
  • 81 percent checked for new messages such as email messages or Facebook
  • 65 percent said they used social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, to coordinate study sessions or group work.

Many of the students said they used incentive benchmarks while working on their work. For example, one student said if she read 25 pages of her materials, she would give herself a short Facebook break.

“It belies conventional wisdom that all students are always on; that they are jumping from gaming and then a sports site or the YouTube videos about cats,” Head said. “That’s not happening when times are most intense, and that’s interesting because it makes us question assumptions a lot of faculty have and a lot of parents have about students and their technology use.”

Being labeled as the “dumbest generation” and as multitasking slackers has students eager to set the record straight, Head said. In her interviews with students studying at the library, she said she heard countless stories of students who said "I have a cell phone because I have three jobs and it's basically my lifeline to my jobs and how I’m paying tuition and I’m here completing an assignment and then I’ll go to a job in the next two hours."

Head also noticed how students, in growing numbers, were using social media and other technologies as study tools — nearly two-thirds of the respondents said they had used social media for coursework. One student said he was having trouble understanding concepts in his physics class, so he researched lessons on YouTube, which helped him catch up with the coursework.

Head said the implications are vast. “This report shines some light on what the new learning practices of a new century are, and maybe in a larger sense, for professors and librarians raises questions about pedagogy,” she said. “The authority of pedagogy is shifting in the university setting.”

She said she is constantly asked how teaching and learning are any different than they were 20 years ago. Cell phones and laptops are just a distraction, some of her peers say.

“The technologies are so ubiquitous and they are also interruptive and disruptive and convenient … so they have to be managed in some way and students are doing this in a creative way.”

Of course, she added, some things are different these days. "A typewriter didn’t wake me up in the night to tell me that they saw my boyfriend at a party," she said.

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