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Research: College Students More Distracted Than Ever

Students are more distracted than ever. They tend to check their digital devices, particularly, their smartphones, an average of 11.43 times during class for non-classroom activities. A solid 12 percent do texting, emailing, checking the time or other activities in class more than 30 times a day.

A study published in the Journal of Media Education this week reported that students spend a fifth of their time in class doing things on their devices that have nothing to do with their school work.

The research was undertaken by Associate Professor Barney McCoy, who teaches multimedia and news courses at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Two years ago McCoy ran a similar study that found similar results, but now the level of distraction has worsened.

Whereas in 2013 30 percent of students self-reported that they used a digital device more than 10 times for non-learning reasons during class-time, in 2015 the count rose to 34 percent. Those students who never use their devices for distraction dropped from eight percent in 2013 to three percent for 2015.

The most prevalent form of distraction was texting, reported by 87 percent of students in the 2015 study. At 76 percent email came in second, closely followed by "checking the time" at 75 percent. Social networking was reported by 70 percent of respondents, Web surfing by 42 percent and game-playing by 10 percent.

This second round of the survey was more extensive than the first round, encompassing responses from 675 students in 26 states.

The time spent in non-learning activities, reported McCoy in a prepared statement, "can add up." During the typical four years students spend in college classrooms, he calculated, they may be distracted on average for "two-thirds of a school year."

The students acknowledged that their digital tendencies have a cost. When they were asked to list the biggest disadvantages they suffer in using digital devices in classrooms for non-class reasons, nearly nine in 10 (89 percent) responded, "don't pay attention" and 80.5 percent listed "miss instruction."

The main reason they continue their digital habits: "To stay connected" and "fight boredom," both specified by 63 percent of respondents.

While 53 percent of the students said they believed it would be helpful to have policies limiting non-classroom uses of digital devices (and 32 percent said just the opposite), 90 percent said digital devices shouldn't be banned from classrooms.

And most respondents indicated that they shouldn't need to change their behavior. Three in 10 (30 percent) said they believed they could use their digital devices without distracting from their learning. Another 27 percent said it was their choice to use a digital device whenever they wanted. And 13 percent reported that the benefits of using their devices for non-class activities "outweighed" the distractions they caused. Eleven percent said they couldn't stop no matter what.

Because "fighting boredom" was the most common reason cited by students for using devices in class, McCoy suggested that students "need to learn more effective self-control techniques to keep them focused on the learning at hand." But it also meant, he wrote, that instructors could "benefit from learning and experimenting with new ways to engage college students in classroom activities that might reduce boredom and minimize disruptions."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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