Students Study Effects of Texting on Learning

Release Date: 
January 27, 2010

When college students use their cell phones to text during class, how much information do they lose? Sterling College Psychology Chair Dr. Arnold Froese has asked many students that question-but he's not being sarcastic-he's doing research. Last semester Dr. Froese and a team of students decided to find some real answers to the question. They conducted a survey and an experiment and then sent their findings to the Southwestern Psychological Association (SWPA). Recently they received the news that they will be presenting the results of both the survey and the experiment at the SWPA's annual conference in early April.
So what are the answers? "We found that more than 30% of the college students we surveyed-and these were students from four different schools in the Southwest-are ‘super-texters,' meaning they send more than 100 texts per day," said Dr. Froese. "More than 50% total send out 50 or more texts per day. And our project documents that texting during a class leads to, on average, a 27% loss of information."
Dr. Froese presented his research students with the topic in the early fall. "It's a strong topic, very relevant, very interesting," said senior Brian Allen of Caldwell, Kan. But though his fellow researchers agreed and felt they would get good responses from other college students, they first had to create a survey and experiment. "I learned a lot from the process," said senior Christina Carpenter of Bailey, Col. "The first draft of our survey was completely different than the final product. We had to be very careful about word choice and lack of bias. The process of obtaining valid results was very complex, but every step was important."
The team created a 21-item survey that was sent to several colleges in the Southwest and one in New York. More than 400 surveys came back. "One of the survey results that interested me," said sophomore Jessica Schooley of Liberal, Kan., "was that even people who are ‘super texters' rarely take their phones to church-and according to the results of our survey, super texters take their phones everywhere."
Besides asking college students how often they carried phones in different contexts and how often they used them for texting, the survey also asked responders how often they responded to cell messages in different contexts and what effects they thought texting had on their learning. "What most surprised me was the finding that students expect to lose information when they text-yet they do it anyway," said Dr. Froese. "The survey did reveal, however, that low frequency texters expect greater decrements from texting than high frequency texters do."
For the experiment, the research team recruited 40 Sterling College students to receive two presentations. The presentations described stories from two books and included recorded narrative and projected visual information. The participants were divided into groups and were told to either ignore or respond to their cell phones, and then student-researchers texted questions to them during the presentations. Instructions were reversed for the second session, and participants were given a ten-question quiz following each session. In addition to the quiz results, researchers recorded the number of words in participants' notes, how long participants were engaged in texting activities, and how many words they produced during their texting sessions.
"The student-researchers showed great creativity with the method we used to conduct the experiment," said Dr. Froese. "What they developed could be used for other experiments."
The results of this experiment were sobering. Texting reduced participants' quiz scores by nearly 30%, and texting also reduced note taking. Note taking correlated positively with quiz scores.
There were a few exceptions to the general results. "It was really interesting to me," said Rebecca Barnes, a first-year student from Hiawatha, Kan., "that a few people were able to do well on the quizzes even while texting."
It is exceptions like this that lead to more research. "Research projects create a platform for a program," said Dr. Froese. "The program actually explores answers." As the current president-elect of the SWPA, Froese plans to use this project, and others that the SC students will complete, to contribute to the presidential address he will present in April of 2011. "The student presentations that are coming up this spring continue the strong showing SC students have traditionally had at the SWPA. Since 1990, SC students have presented at eight annual conferences."
Still, Dr. Froese expects good interest in this particular topic. "Not long ago I was at a teaching conference and I told a cognitive neuropsychologist about our project. He said, ‘People are going to want to talk to you about this. This has great appeal.'"