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Smartphones are Keeping Students from Concentrating During Lectures

As we progress through the Digital Age, scientists are working to determine how technology is changing the way we think, feel and behave. Now, studies are showing that the abundant use of smartphones by college students is altering the way they concentrate on lecture material. Here, the classroom technology specialists at SchoolMart break down the results and implications of these studies.

For the majority of college students, their smartphones are never far from hand, and act as their link to friends, family, their community and the world at large. While the benefits of smartphones are generally understood and accepted by most people, the drawbacks to constant connectedness has only just begun to be thoroughly researched. Now, a growing body of researchers believes that the prevalent use of smartphones is changing society’s ability to think and concentrate. This change is most clearly seen in our most tech-savvy demographic—college students.

As stated by Dr. Daniel le Roux and Mr. Douglas Parry from the Cognition and Technology Research Group in the Department of Information Science at Stellenbosch University, “While ever-smarter digital devices have made many aspects of our lives easier and more efficient, a growing body of evidence suggests that, by continuously distracting us, they are harming our ability to concentrate.” Their work, which focuses on the impact of digital media—and most especially phones—on students’ ability to concentrate in the classroom, has yielded some upsetting results for educators and students alike.

Digital natives—those born after 1980, who have been surrounded by technology nearly all of their lives—have grown up knowing how to multi-task with technology. They use their phones while on public transport, while eating, while talking and, of course, while listening to lectures in class. While many digital natives may feel themselves to be experts in multi-tasking, the research done by Dr. Roux and Dr. Parry shows otherwise. Even the most talented multi-tasker cannot fight biology: our ability to perform a primary task automatically suffers when the brain is exposed to additional tasks and stimuli. The researchers came to the conclusion that, “…making sense of lecture content is very difficult when you switch attention to your phone every five minutes. A strong body of evidence supports this, showing that media use during lectures is associated with lower academic performance.”

There is also a secondary, but no less detrimental, effect of college student’s ubiquitous use of smartphones: “…[smartphones] harm students’ ability to concentrate on any particular thing for an extended period of time. They become accustomed to switching to alternative streams of stimuli at increasingly short intervals. The moment the lecture fails to engage or becomes difficult to follow, the phones come out.” Essentially, smartphones are programming college students’ brains to reject information that takes longer to convey than a couple minutes—sometimes even less than that.

What does this mean for educators? Many college lecturers have begun implementing a no-phones policy within their classrooms; however, the digital age of smartphones and other digital media will continue to alter the way students act and think, and so other solutions must be developed. A possible course of action is to embrace the change in the way students think and behave, and create lectures that better implement the sorts of technology with which digital natives are so familiar. Creating lectures that are short and concise may also prove valuable. As the Digital Age moves ever-forward, educators and educational leaders will need to begin reconsidering the way education is delivered to students in order to meet the evolution of student’s minds and behaviors.

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