Empirical Evidence That Text Messaging During Class Disrupts Comprehension

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OMG! Texting in Class ¼ U Fail 🙁 Empirical Evidence That Text Messaging During Class Disrupts Comprehension

Amanda C. Gingerich1 and Tara T. Lineweaver1

Abstract In two experiments, we examined the effects of text messaging during lecture on comprehension of lecture material. Students (in Experiment 1) and randomly assigned participants (in Experiment 2) in a text message condition texted a prescribed con- versation while listening to a brief lecture. Students and participants in the no-text condition refrained from texting during the same lecture. Postlecture quiz scores confirmed the hypothesis that texting during lecture would disrupt comprehension and retention of lecture material. In both experiments, the no-text group significantly outscored the text group on the quiz and felt more confident about their performance. The classroom demonstration described in Experiment 1 provides preliminary empiri- cal evidence that texting during class disrupts comprehension in an actual classroom environment. Experiment 2 addressed the selection bias and demand characteristic issues present in Experiment 1 and replicated the main findings. Together, these two experiments clearly illustrate the detrimental effects of texting during class, which could discourage such behavior in students.

Keywords texting, distraction, comprehension, cognitive overload

According to Nielsen, U.S. wireless subscribers between the ages

of 18 and 24 sent an average of 790 text messages per month

between January 2006 and June 2008 (The Nielsen Company,

2008). That equates to more than one text message on average

sent each hour of every day over the entire month. Survey

responses of college students are even more impressive; 95% of students report bringing their phones with them to class every day

and 91% report using their phones to text message during class time (Mayk, 2010). Given that text messaging during class is so

common, the question of how dividing attention between lecture

and text messaging affects students’ comprehension and retention

of classroom material warrants investigation.

Although there is a relative abundance of research showing

the dangers of dividing one’s attention through text messaging

while driving (e.g., Drews, Yazdani, Godfrey, Cooper, &

Strayer, 2009; Hosking, Young, & Regan, 2009; Lee, 2007;

Strayer & Johnston, 2001), to our knowledge, no published

research has addressed the effects of text messaging in the

classroom on comprehension of lecture material. Several

researchers have demonstrated that intrusive noises such as a

cell phone ringing during cognitive tasks impair academic per-

formance (e.g., End, Worthman, Mathews, & Wetterau, 2010;

Hughes & Jones, 2001), but no one has published research

investigating the potentially detrimental effects of text messa-

ging during class on learning. This issue is especially pertinent

given the high prevalence of text messaging among college

students (Mayk, 2010).

Copious research has demonstrated the detrimental cogni-

tive effects of divided attention, although not conducted in a

classroom setting. Rubinstein, Meyer, and Evans (2001), for

example, found that people lost time as they switched from one

cognitive task to another; the amount of time they lost

increased as the task became more complex or unfamiliar.

Given that students rarely (if ever) focus on a lecture while text

messaging, task switching may be a more accurate description

of what texting students are doing in class. Other researchers

have demonstrated that divided attention impairs memory

particularly when attention is divided during the initial learning

and encoding of new information (Fernandes & Moscovitch,

2000). Thus, students trying to learn the typically new, com-

plex, and unfamiliar material introduced during lecture may

be particularly vulnerable to the divided attention associated

with text messaging.

In addition to the scarcity of empirical research addressing

the effects of text messaging on learning in the classroom,

we were motivated to conduct these experiments by the results

of a previous in-class demonstration in which we paired

1 Department of Psychology, Butler University, Indianapolis, IN, USA

Corresponding Author:

Amanda C. Gingerich, Department of Psychology, Butler University, 4600

Sunset Avenue Indianapolis, IN 46208, USA.

Email: mgingeri@butler.edu

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students with someone sitting near them. Half of the pairs com-

prised a ‘‘text-first’’ group, who completed an entire prescribed

text-messaging conversation before reading a research article

describing neurological evidence that divided attention modu-

lates the extent to which declarative memory or habit learning

contributes to solving a complex problem (Foerde, Knowlton,

Poldrack, & Smith, 2006). The remaining pairs comprised a

‘‘text-while-reading’’ group, who began reading the article

immediately and completed the same text-messaging conversa-

tion while they read. As such, the ‘‘text-first’’ group focused on

only one task at a time, while the ‘‘text-while-reading’’ group

engaged in frequent task switching. All students took a quiz

over the article as soon as they finished reading it.

After 15 min, 70% of the ‘‘text-first’’ group had started the quiz compared to only 40% in the ‘‘text-while-reading’’ group, despite the time delay that occurred before beginning the read-

ing in the ‘‘text-first’’ group. After another 10 min, 40% in the ‘‘text-first’’ group had finished the quiz, compared to only 20% in the ‘‘text-while-reading’’ group. Finally, scores on the quiz

revealed that the students who texted while simultaneously

reading the article earned an average of 3.6 points, which was

notably lower than the 5.6 points earned by the ‘‘text-first’’

group. Based on these findings, we designed a pair of experi-

ments to more rigorously test the deleterious effects of text

messaging on learning in a classroom environment.

Experiment 1

Method

Participants

A total of 67 students across three consecutive semesters of an

upper-level cognitive processes class at Butler University

participated in this experiment. Participation was voluntary,

and we did not compensate students, as the experiment was

conducted as part of an in-class demonstration.

Materials and Procedure

During a lecture on attention and time management, we asked

for volunteers who had unlimited text-messaging plans on their

mobile devices and who had their device with them to partici-

pate in a demonstration. We selected a subset of these volun-

teers equal to approximately half of the students in the class

to be in the text condition of the experiment. Those in the text

condition (n ¼ 35) submitted their mobile phone numbers, which we shuffled and redistributed to one other text-condition

student. During the lecture, students in the text condition began

and sustained a prescribed conversation via text message with

both the person whose phone number they received and the

person who received their phone number. The remaining stu-

dents in the class (those who did not volunteer or whom we did

not select for the text condition) were in the no-text control

condition (n ¼ 32).

All participants heard a brief lecture on time management

strategies and took a quiz (announced before the lecture) on the

material from the lecture. We projected the text conversation

(see Appendix) on the screen at the front of the room and began

the lecture, which lasted approximately 12 min. After a 5- to

7-min delay, participants completed a multiple-choice quiz

on the time management material. After taking the quiz but

before seeing their grade, participants also assessed their per-

formance by indicating what percentage of the questions they

believed they had answered correctly (1 ¼ 0–49%, 2 ¼ 50– 59%, 3 ¼ 60–69%, 4 ¼ 70–79%, 5 ¼ 80–89%, 6 ¼ 90–99%, 7 ¼ 100%). We then collected the experimental materials and resumed the class lecture on divided attention.

Results

Figure 1 displays the mean percentage of correctly answered

quiz items as a function of text-messaging condition. A two-

way analysis of variance (ANOVA) with condition (text vs.

no-text) and semester (Spring 2010 vs. Fall 2010 vs. Spring

2011) as between-participants independent variables revealed

a main effect of condition, F (1, 61)¼ 14.24, mean square error (MSE) ¼ 427.51, p < .001, Z2 ¼ .189. Participants in the text condition (M ¼ 60.14%, SD ¼ 23.81%) answered significantly fewer quiz items correctly than did participants in the no-text

condition (M ¼ 79.22%, SD ¼ 15.56%). Neither the main effect of semester nor the condition by semester interaction

reached significance, both Fs (2, 61) < 1, suggesting that the

effect of condition was consistent across time.

Figure 2 displays the mean performance self-assessments of

participants in the text condition and participants in the no-text

condition. A two-way ANOVA with condition (text vs. no-text)

and semester (Spring 2010 vs. Fall 2010 vs. Spring 2011) as

between-participants factors revealed a main effect of text con-

dition, F(1, 61) ¼ 31.35, MSE ¼ 1.32, p < .001, Z2 ¼ .339.

Figure 1. Mean percentage of correctly answered quiz items as a function of text-messaging condition in Experiment 1.

Gingerich and Lineweaver 45

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Participants in the text condition (M¼ 3.83, SD¼ 1.38) did not believe they answered as many items correctly on the quiz as

did those in the no-text condition (M ¼ 5.53, SD ¼ .84). This indicates that participants who texted during the lecture were

aware that their performance on the quiz was compromised.

The main effect of semester, F(2, 61) ¼ 1.56, MSE ¼ 1.32, p ¼ .218, Z2 ¼ .049, and the condition by semester interaction, F(2, 61) ¼ 0.72, MSE ¼ 1.32, p ¼ .493, Z2 ¼ .023, failed to reach significance. Thus, the lower confidence that the text

group had in their quiz scores relative to the no-text group was

consistent across all three semesters.

Discussion

The demonstration described in Experiment 1 effectively illus-

trates how texting during class impairs comprehension and

retention of lecture material as measured by quiz scores. The

results of Experiment 1 also provide preliminary empirical

evidence that text messaging during lecture interferes with

mastery of lecture material. However, our findings are limited

by a number of factors. Our study did not utilize a true experi-

mental design. We did not randomly assign our students to the

text or the no-text condition. Instead, students who had mobile

phone plans with unlimited text messaging volunteered for the

text condition so that students would not incur any monetary

expense as a result of their participation. As such, a selection

bias may have influenced our results. Specifically, students

who are heavy media multitaskers may be more likely to have

phone plans with unlimited text messaging. Previous research

has shown that, compared to light media multitaskers, heavy

media multitaskers are more likely to experience interference

from irrelevant stimuli in the environment and from irrelevant

memory representations (Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009). Thus,

if heavy media multitaskers were overrepresented in our text

group and light media multitaskers were overrepresented in our

no-text group, the group differences we documented in quiz

scores may be attributable to a differential vulnerability to

interference from irrelevant stimuli.

Another potential scientific limitation of Experiment 1 is

that we conducted it as part of an in-class demonstration of the

effects of divided attention. Although students were aware that

they would take a quiz on the information, which, presumably,

motivated their best effort, they were also aware of the intended

outcome of the demonstration, which may have introduced

demand characteristics.

To control both of these potential confounds, we designed

Experiment 2 to replicate the results of Experiment 1 in a con-

trolled laboratory setting. We excluded students who did not

have unlimited texting as part of their mobile phone plans and

randomly assigned students who did have unlimited texting to

the text or the no-text condition. We lectured over material

unrelated to divided attention and included participants who

were not enrolled in a cognitive processes class in order to

reduce these possible biases.

We also used Experiment 2 to follow up on our somewhat

surprising results that demonstrated that students in the text

group accurately judged their performance on the quiz to be

lower than that of the no-text group. Our students made this

judgment after they took the quiz, but before they received their

score. One possibility is that students do not realize that text

messaging during class is distracting to their learning until after

they are faced with a quiz on which they do not know several of

the answers. In a typical classroom setting, quizzes may follow

lectures by several days to several weeks. In this case, a number

of intervening events occur between the lecture and the quiz,

and students who are seeking explanations for a poor quiz score

may be unlikely to attribute their poor retention of lecture

material to texting during class. In addition, students who

recognize their learning deficit only after taking a quiz may

be too late to adjust their study habits in order to overcome

it. In other words, students may not feel that their learning is

impaired after text messaging during a lecture, but they may

realize this impairment after attempting to retrieve the material

later. If this is the case, text messaging during class may have

an even greater detrimental effect on students’ grades than we

were able to demonstrate in our study. Students may not recog-

nize their lower mastery of the lecture material covered while

they were texting until they take a quiz or exam, when it is too

late for them to compensate for their decreased initial learning

by increasing the time and effort they dedicate to studying that

information in preparation for the graded assessment.

Because the design of Experiment 1 did not allow us to

determine at what point in time students became aware of how

texting during lecture affected their learning, we gathered

students’ predictions about their performance at several time

points in Experiment 2 to investigate whether students who text

message during lecture recognize that their comprehension has

been compromised even before they take a quiz. Including

additional measures of students’ learning confidence also

allowed us to investigate whether the accuracy of students’

metacognitive judgments are affected by their being distracted

Figure 2. Mean performance self-assessment as a function of text- messaging condition in Experiment 1.

46 Teaching of Psychology 41(1)

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by text messaging while learning new material in class. Some

researchers have found that dividing participants’ attention

while they encode a word list results in less accurate judgments

of their own learning than allowing participants to focus their

attention (e.g., Barnes & Dougherty, 2010). Experiment 2

allowed us to investigate whether this is also true when applied

to learning lecture material in a classroom-like setting.

Experiment 2

In order to address the selection bias and demand characteristics

present in Experiment 1, we designed and conducted a more con-

trolled experiment, one that did not take place in the context of a

class on divided attention and one in which participants were

randomly assigned to text or not to text during the ‘‘lecture.’’

Method

Participants

Fifty-six undergraduate students (40 women and 16 men) at

Butler University participated in this experiment. Participants

either received extra credit in a psychology course or a

US$10 gift card to a fast-food restaurant in return for their par-

ticipation. Participants were recruited from psychology courses

through an online participant management program.

Materials and Procedure

Participation occurred in group testing sessions that ranged in

size from 1 person to 15 people. After obtaining informed

consent, we told participants that the purpose of the study was

to investigate how classmates communicate about lecture

material and how their communication affects learning. We

randomly assigned each participant to the ‘‘text’’ or ‘‘no-text’’

condition. However, in order to minimize participants’ expec-

tations regarding their performance in this experiment, we told

participants that they were assigned to one of three conditions:

a no-text group, a text about lecture content group, or a text

about unrelated content group. In reality, no participants texted

about lecture content. Participants were told that they would

listen to a lecture about the effectiveness of various study

strategies before taking a quiz on the lecture content. All

participants were told to take notes on the lecture material as

though they were in class. Participants then received a packet

containing their assigned condition and a text conversation

between two people. Those assigned to the text condition

received the phone number of one other participant and were

instructed to skim the conversation and to begin texting that

conversation when the ‘‘lecture’’ began. Those assigned to the

no-text condition were instructed to read the text conversation,

which had occurred between two students recently. After learn-

ing what the quiz would involve but before the lecture began,

participants predicted how well they would perform on the quiz

by indicating how many of the nine quiz questions they

expected to answer correctly. After they made their prediction,

the experimenter began the lecture on how people learn.

Participants in the text condition sustained the prescribed con-

versation via text message with another student in the room

during the lecture, whereas those in the no-text condition did

not. At the end of the approximately 30-min lecture, partici-

pants again predicted how well they would perform on the quiz.

In order to prevent participants from rehearsing lecture

content, we instituted a distractor phase, in which participants

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