25 September 2016
Is There Any Hope for Learning?: College Students Addicted to Texts and Tech
Joelle Renstrom, eon.co, 12 September 2016
My college students are never entirely present in class, addicted to texts and tech. Is there any hope left for learning?
I have a rule about cellphones in class: if one disrupts us by ringing, vibrating or sounding an alarm, the owner has to sing a song or bust some dance moves in front of the class. At first, this provision in the syllabus elicits snickers, but it’s no laughing matter. You need to be able to turn off your phones and pay attention, I say. On the first day of class, they shut off their phones. But it doesn’t stay that way.
While my students – undergraduates at Boston University who are taking classes on writing and research – agree that there’s a problem if they can’t go 50 minutes without checking their phones, few of them can resist, despite knowing that this is my biggest pet peeve. A University of Nebraska-Lincoln study indicates that 80 per cent of college students send text messages during class. Nearly 100 per cent of them text before and after class. In the minutes before class – the ones I used to spend shooting the breeze with students about TV shows, sports or what they did over the weekend – we now sit in technologically-induced silence. Students rarely even talk to each other anymore. Gone are the days when they gabbed about the impossible chemistry midterm they just took or the quality of the food at the dining halls. Around the 30-minute mark in class, their hands inch toward their backpacks or into their pockets, fingers feeling around for the buttons as though their mere shape offers comfort. When I end class, they whip out their phones with a collective sigh of relief, as though they’ve all just been allowed to go to the bathroom after having to hold it all day.
Even when my students stash their cellphones, my classes look like an Apple commercial – faces hide behind screens embossed with the same famous fruit. I have no delusions that they’re taking notes for class or referencing that day’s reading. A University of Waterloo professor who put a postgraduate at the back of his lecture hall to observe his students learned that 85 per cent of them did something unrelated to class on their laptops; a Cornell University study confirms that most students engage in ‘high-tech “doodling”’ and communication during class. One might think that the whopping $65,000 cost of attending Boston University for a year would provide ample reason to maintain focus during class, but one would be wrong.
Even students who take notes on their laptops miss out. A study from Princeton University shows that we process information better when taking notes by hand because writing is slower than typing (an argument often spun in favour of laptops), which helps students learn and retain the material. Similarly, people better comprehend what they’re reading if it’s on paper rather than on the screen. In a study from the University of Stavanger in Norway, readers on Kindle struggled to remember plot details in comparison with those who read printed books, perhaps because the physical act of turning the pages helps our memories encode the words. Another study revealed comprehension loss for subjects reading PDF versions of texts. Such findings have caused professors to ban computers in the classroom, which is something I used to do but can’t any more.