Cell Phones and Boundaries


Regular readers of this blog—and, people who have even a glimpse of common sense—already know that mobile devices distract college students during lectures.

(If you’d like a review of research on this topic, you can check out The Distracted Mind by Gazzaley and Rosen.)

You can picture college students now: squinting at small screens, thumbing away at tiny keyboards, chuckling at oddly inappropriate moments of the lecture.

How can there possibly be any reason to research this question further?

One Reason to Research this Question Further

When scientists discover any kind of principal, they quickly start investigating the specific conditions under which it applies.

For example: we know that retrieval practice is—generally speaking— a great way to review. But, does it work equally well for 8-year-olds, 18-year-olds, and 80-year-olds?

We know that a growth mindset—generally speaking—enhances motivation. But, does it work for athletic as well as academic endeavors?

We know that—generally speaking—stress is bad for learning. But: how much stress is bad? Is there a low level of stress that might be good? Or, are there some tasks that benefit from high levels of stress during learning?

Researchers call these boundary conditions: a finding applies under these particular circumstances, but not those particular circumstances.

And so, we might want to investigate use of mobile devices during lectures even further to discover their boundary conditions. Are there ages at which cell-phone use matters less? Are there class lengths where it matters more? Are there personality types who learn more while surfing away?

A Surprising Answer

A group of researchers in South Africa wanted to find boundary conditions for the harm done by mobile devices in college lectures. In particular, they wanted to know: do cell phones lower grades equally in all disciplines?

Perhaps history students are more distractible than classics students. Or, perhaps physics concepts can be obscured more readily than biology concepts.

By surveying students and by doing a meta-analysis of other studies, le Roux & Parry found that mobile phones did less harm in Engineering classes than in Arts and Social Sciences classes.

So: cell phones distract students during lectures, but they don’t distract students equally during lectures on different topics.

Teaching Implications

I, for one, wouldn’t encourage my Engineering students to break out the iPads during class. Those devices might not be as distracting as in other classes, but they’re still distracting.

(And: they’re probably distracting to other students: see Faria Sana’s research.)

Here’s what I would do: follow le Roux’s example and look for boundary conditions.

If a speaker says “working memory limits preclude students from remembering more than 2 instructions,” ask if that rule applies to your 11th graders. Ask if it applies to written instructions as well as verbal instructions. Ask if it applies to instructions given in a foreign language class. Ask if it applies to instructions that students must follow over the next 30 minutes.

Look for boundary conditions.

(By the way, the answer to those questions are:

  1. Because WM capacity increases with age, most 11th graders can recall more than 2 instructions.
  2. Written instructions don’t take up much working memory capacity at all.
  3. Because foreign language instruction is VERY WM taxing, students might struggle to remember even a small number of instructions.
  4. The longer students have to remember instructions, the harder that effort becomes. That’s why you make shopping lists: it’s hard to remember what you want at the store when it’s 30 minutes away.)

In Sum…

Cognitive sciences offers teachers general principles—and those principles can be mightily helpful. (For instance: retrieval practice DOES work well for 8, 18, and 80 year olds.)

But, most of those principles do have important boundaries. Your students, your class size, your discipline, your age group, your personality—all these variables just might be outside those boundaries.

And so: be curious about the general principles. And, be equally curious about their boundaries.

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