Digital Distractions in The Classroom

A recent study by University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher Bernard McCoy surveyed 777 students at six U.S. universities about classroom use of digital devices for non-class related purposes, and the effect of this behavior on classroom learning.

Respondents were asked how often they use non-class related digital distractions in the classroom; the advantages and disadvantages of using digital devices for non-class purposes; what instructors should do to address digital distractions in the classroom; and if formal policies should be put in place to address them.

34.9 percent of those surveyed indicated that they used a digital device during classes for non-classroom related activities "1 to 3 times" on a typical day.  26.8 percent said "4 to 10 times," 15.7 percent said "11 to 30 times," and 14.8 percent said "more than 30 times."  Only 7.9 percent reported they never use a digital device during classes for non-classroom related activities.

Asked why they were using their devices in class, the top answer was texting (86 percent), followed by checking the time (79 percent), e-mail (68 percent), social networking (66 percent), web surfing (38 percent) and games (8 percent).  Respondents indicated that that allowed them to stay connected (69.8 percent), fight boredom (55 percent), do related classwork (49.4 percent), be entertained (49.1 percent), and be reachable in case of emergency (41 percent).

About two thirds of those surveyed recognized that both their own, and other students' use of digital devices for non-classroom related activities represents a distraction, and a majority (53.7 percent) favor policies limiting these distractions.  They don't want these policies too strictly enforced, however, and they overwhelmingly (91.2 percent) oppose a classroom ban on digital devices.

According to McCoy, it's important for academics to understand how and why students feel the need to be online for non-academic reasons. "When college students multi-task with digital devices in classrooms, research indicates it may hamper their ability to pay attention," he writes. "This behavior, research suggests, has become more habitual, automatic and distracting."

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Frederique Laubepin

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