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Cellphones in Classrooms Lead to Lower Grades

What’s the link between cellphones in classrooms and bad grades? A study from Rutgers University has shown that the two things might be more closely related than we think.

Cellphones in classrooms linked to falling grades

Technology has created major advancements and opportunities in the field of learning. Students have easier access to information, digital materials make schools more efficient, and children develop the necessary skills to thrive in a technology-driven world.

But there are downsides.

Use of devices in class has also been linked to problems with cheating, cyberbullying, and being disconnected from human interaction and face-to-face activities.

Perhaps the biggest downside — or at least the one that’s been most extensively measured to date — is distraction.

A 2017 study from Rutgers University–New Brunswick, published in the journal Educational Psychology, found that students who use their cellphones and other devices for non-academic purposes during lectures perform worse in end-of-term exams.

Interestingly, it wasn’t just the students who used devices whose grades suffered. Students who didn’t use devices, but attended the same lectures as those who did, still ended up with lower grades.

So why is this?

Divided attention in the classroom

Cellphones in Classrooms
Cellphones divide attention in the classroom.

You’ve heard of multitasking. It’s often thought of as a valuable skill — one that will turn us into productivity superheroes.

But various studies have shown that multitasking is a myth. Our brains simply don’t work that way. Instead, we’re much more productive when we focus our attention on one thing at a time.

“Many dedicated students think they can divide their attention in the classroom without harming their academic success,” said lead researcher and professor of psychology Arnold Glass in a press release, “but we found an insidious effect on exam performance and final grades.”

In other words, students may think they’re able to multitask by listening to the lecture and using their internet-enabled devices at the same time. But in reality, their attention is pinging back and forth between the two, leading to a decrease in focus.

While the students’ ability to comprehend the lectures wasn’t found to be compromised by this divided attention, long-term retention of the content was. The device-using students did fine on immediate in-class quiz questions — but their performance in later exams suffered by at least half a grade.

Enough to make a difference between a pass or a fail.

Devices and distraction

One question you may be asking is, why might students who simply go to classes where devices are allowed, even if they don’t use one themselves, have lower grades?

The answer is most likely that the mere presence of the devices causes a distraction to everyone present.

It’s worth looking back to another well-publicized study from early 2017 that tested the effects of smartphones on cognitive performance.

In a series of experiments, participants completed tests with their smartphones either on their desk, out of sight but in the same room (e.g. in a bag or pocket), or with their phones completely inaccessible in another room.

The study found that “even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention—as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones—the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the participants whose smartphones were in another room displayed the highest available cognitive capacity out of the three groups; those with phones on their desk displayed the lowest.

“Although these devices have immense potential to improve welfare,” conclude the researchers,
“their persistent presence may come at a cognitive cost.”

It’s this persistent presence that seems to be the cause of problems in classrooms.

What to do about device distraction

The most obvious solution is to ban internet-enabled devices in classrooms. But since this isn’t always possible, or doesn’t always work, educating students could also make a difference.

“To help manage the use of devices in the classroom, teachers should explain to students the damaging effect of distractions on retention – not only on themselves, but for the whole class,” advises Dr. Glass.

Something else worth thinking about is the effect devices like cellphones can have on all of us — not just students. As Glass told ABC news, his research with Rutgers is “absolutely for sure” applicable to other situations, from different levels of schooling to work meetings.

Yet another reason to be more conscious when it comes to using our cell phones. They have a profound impact not just on the health of our bodies, but also on our minds, our memories, and our ability to focus.


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