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The effects of mobile phone use in the classroom

Over the last decades, technology has frequently promised to transform education, but with little actual success in raising pupil performance. Governments have invested in, for example, laptops, tablets, and interactive whiteboards, with disappointing results. More recently, ideas that students learn through a mixture of traditional classroom activities and online content/quizzes – sometimes described as the ‘flipped classroom’ and ‘blended learning’ – have increased in popularity. New apps, such as Khan Academy, Duolingo, and Coursera, have come to offer free educational content in a range of subjects. They also use the data they gather from their tests to improve the effectiveness of their content, and to tailor instruction to the individual student.

Many of these approaches depend on students accessing content through mobile devices. However, mobile devices are banned in many schools and classrooms, with parents and educators often being sceptical of their educational value. Could mobile phones be a platform for the delayed “ed tech” revolution? Or are parents’ and educators’ scepticism warranted?

Research on the use of mobile phones in classrooms tends to finds that mobile phones are distracting – but most it involves students engaging with irrelevant content. A recent study by Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff, Stevie Munz, and Scott Titsworth, ‘Mobile Phones in the Classroom: Examining the Effects of Texting, Twitter, and Message Content on Student Learning’, broke new ground. This study, analysing an experiment carried out among US undergraduate students, was instead designed so that some students would use their mobiles to engage with content of relevance for the lesson. It also attempted to tease out the separate effects of (1) responding to queries posed by someone else, (2) creating messages, and (3) the frequency of messaging.

The researchers divided students into four experimental groups in which they either had to (1) respond to messages of relevance to the lesson, (2) respond to messages that were irrelevant to the lesson (3) create messages of relevance to the lesson; or (4) create messages that were irrelevant to the lesson. Each of these groups was also divided into a high-distraction condition, with students receiving or responding to messages every 30 seconds, and a low-distraction condition, with students receiving or responding to messages every 60 seconds.* The control group was composed of students who did not have any mobile phones at all.

Under the experiment, all students watched a 12-minute video lecture whilst taking notes on it. After the lecture, the students took a free recall test, a multiple-choice test, and their notes were also graded for quality. The irrelevant messages to which students responded were: “What is your favourite restaurant for dinner?”, “Comment on this photo”, “What is your schedule on most Tuesdays?”, and “Which dorm do you recommend living in?”. Relevant messages, on the other hand, asked: “What are the two types of uncertainty?” and “What is the name of the theory the professor is talking about now?”

Overall, students in the control group and students who responded to relevant messages did better than the others on all three measures. Students who created relevant messages did just as well on the test, but they also took poorer-quality notes, while students who responded to or created irrelevant messages did worse on the test and note-taking.

What can explain these results? The researchers suggest that creating messages is a more cognitively intense task than simply responding to messages – and thus distracted students more, even if the content of the message was related to the lecture. However, they also suggest that both sending and receiving relevant messages may involve similar process as those that occur during note-taking, allowing students to perform well on the free-recall and multiple choice tests.

The results lead the authors to ‘caution against rushing to integrate texting and Twitter into the classroom.’ Since students who engaged with relevant messages did not outperform the control group, while those who engaged with irrelevant messages underperformed, there appears to be limited benefits of allowing mobile phones in the classroom even when they are used as intended – and merely downsides if they are not used as intended.

Still, the paper does offer some hope for smartphone enthusiasts: the authors suggest mobile phones could be successfully integrated into classrooms if students are given a brief break to compose messages about the lesson content specifically.

The experiment confirms one well-known fact about the human mind: in order to learn something, we have to concentrate on it. Distractions do not help, and multitasking impairs performance. However, the paper also asks us to look at education technology in a new and more fruitful way. Whereas much previous research analyses whether mobile devices are intrinsically good or bad, this experiment looks at how they can be good or bad depending on how they are deployed. In doing so, the paper suggests that the crucial aspect of learning is not the medium used to communicate a topic – but the extent to which students are concentrating on the topic.

Yet it is always possible that technology generates more distraction: students equipped with a pen and paper can doodle, but those with a connected smartphone face many more temptations. As the authors acknowledge, experiments of the kind analysed in the paper do not accurately reproduce the way students use their mobile phone in class. If mobile phones in real-life settings lead to more distraction in the classroom, this would be a significant strike against them. Overall, therefore, the paper’s findings make clear that the burden of proof ultimately rests on proponents of education technology – it is up them to show how such technology will enhance, not divert, concentration.


* In the paper, the authors refer to creating messages as ‘tweeting’ and responding to messages as ‘texting’, even though it is possible to create text messages and respond to tweets.


Daisy Christodoulou is the Research and Development Manager at ARK Schools (Absolute Return for Kids). A Teach First graduate, she taught English in two London comprehensives. She is the author of Seven Myths about Education.

This comment piece originally appeared in the CMRE Annual Research Digest 2015. The piece reviews a paper by Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff, Stevie Munz, and Scott Titsworth, ‘Mobile Phones in the Classroom: Examining the Effects of Texting, Twitter, and Message Content on Student Learning', which appeared in the July 2015 issue of Communication Education, which may be downloaded free here.
CMRE also produce a Monthly Research Digest, edited by our Research Director, Gabriel Heller Sahlgren. You can download back copies of the digest here.
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