Classroom Technology

Multi-Tasking With Mobile Phones: Yep, It’s Bad for Learning

By Benjamin Herold — April 17, 2018 2 min read
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This might not come as a shock.

Multitasking with a mobile phone negatively impacts students’ lecture recall, reading comprehension, and reading speed, according to a new analysis presented here today at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association.

The worst effects come from using social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, according to a paper presented by doctoral student Quan Chen and associate professor Zheng Yan of the University at Albany, State University of New York.

Their study, titled “A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Off-Task Multitasking with Mobile Phones on Learning,” used statistical techniques to aggregate the results of 29 prior studies on the topic, published between 2003 and 2016. All told, 1,925 participants took part in those studies, each of which examined the ways students (often in college) engage in multitasking behaviors such as talking, texting, social networking, surfing the internet, and instant messaging.

The meta-analysis follows up on literature review on the topic that the duo published in 2016 in the academic journal Computers in Human Behavior.

While there have been relatively few studies looking at the impact of mobile multi-tasking on student learning, the researchers found, there’s a rich literature on the impact of such behavior on such activities as driving.

Generally speaking, such studies have found that mobile-phone multi-tasking causes both divided attention (in which people try to process more than one set of information at a time) and “rapid attention switching” (in which people’s focus swings back and forth between different information sources.)

So-called “digital natives,” who have grown up with mobile devices and the internet, generally have higher multitasking ability than their older peers, but also have “continuous partial attention,” the literature review says.

The new meta-analysis focused on three big questions:

  • Does mobile-phone multi-tasking adversely affect learning?
  • Which learning outcomes are most adversely affected?
  • Which specific mobile-phone multi-tasking activities have the worst effects?

Overall, Chen and Yan found, “learning performance in general in the no-phone condition is greater than in the phone condition.”

The worst negative effects were seen on students’ reading speed.

The smallest negative effects were seen on students’ ability to recall content from lectures—although ringing cellphones and Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram use “significantly impaired” students’ recall of lecture content, they found.

Such findings will likely not surprise most K-12 educators and administrators, many of whom have long wrestled with issues of “digital distraction.”

But they are sure to further inflame the ongoing debates within both K-12 schools and higher-education institutions about whether to let students bring their own mobile devices to school and use them during class.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.