College students have mobile devices, a fact which frustrates many professors and teaching assistants. Such devices, and their ability to distract students, can be a real thorn in the side of educators. However, a recent study finds that it isn’t so much the existence of these devices–or even their use, which detracts from learning–but how they’re used. They can even benefit students.
The received wisdom states that students who use such devices in class retain less and take lower quality notes than those that do not. Even when those devices are used to take notes, such as on a computer, there is less retention. But it turns out that this isn’t exactly true.
Students who spend more time texting than listening do worse, of course, but students can benefit from sending or replying to messages that are relevant to the class discussion. A study found that students who sent or replied to several messages related to class content actually performed better on a multiple choice test than students who didn’t. They also did much better than students who texted about unrelated content. Even students who used their devices for conversations unrelated to class fell across a spectrum, with students who spent more time texting doing worse than those who texted less.
The hope is that this study could help guide campus policy on mobile devices. That policy could be more dynamic as a result. Getting students to give up their phones or to completely avoid Facebook while taking notes is probably impossible. However, if professors and teaching assistants use those devices as a way to engage their students, they might actually be beneficial. Having students compose tweets or status updates about content or sharing relevant pictures on Instagram and requiring or requesting comments on them could help students pay attention. These new modes of communication aren’t going away, so educators might as well find ways to use them.