As a student, you want to be successful – attain a good GPA. Gain knowledge and understanding of your discipline. Develop skills, such as research, writing, presenting, math, critical thinking, meta-cognition, self-reflection, and discipline-specific skills. Be able to think deeply about the world and ourselves. These are all essential cognitive capital for our knowledge-based culture and economy.

Researchers have been studying what factors help us learn and what factors interfere with learning, and we actually have found out a lot about the many factors that help and hurt (see my webpage on Schneider and Preckel’s systematic review of meta-analyses). Class attendance, for example, has a strong positive effect on learning (makes sense!), as does student engagement. On the other hand, in these postings I’ve been reporting research on factors which have been found to have a strongly destructive effect on learning, such as the use of distracting tech in and out of the classroom (which also makes sense to anyone who has walked into a lamppost while texting). Texting and other off-task activities have proved to be distracting, and/or time-wasting, and/or actually interfering with our knowledge and memory, to the point of lowering academic outcomes such as GPAs.

The cognitive resources we use to attend, understand, process and store information in memory are limited – and the more difficult, new, complex or abstract the information we are trying to learn, such as concepts in our courses, the more our cognitive resources are taxed by distractions or attempts to multitask while learning. Our memory and the deep learning needed to understand and apply these concepts is seriously sabotaged.

I’ve also been posting research studies that find that these distractions don’t affect every student the same way. Personality traits make a difference, with students who are higher in conscientiousness and/or introversion and low in distractibility less affected then students who are extroverted and/or impulsive and/or high in distractibility. And working memory span also varies between students, and that makes a difference too.

In some recent studies by Junco and others, researchers are turning their attention to other subtle factors that make the difference between tech use that sabotages learning, tech use that has no effect, and tech use that may enhance learning. Here’s two factors Junco (2012, 2015) has looked at in recent years – 1) what specific activities students do on Facebook and 2) what year are they in in their degree (from first year to fourth year, called “freshmen”, sophomores, juniors and seniors).

Studying what students do on Facebook or messaging or texting, Junco (2012) found that the actual activities make a difference. Students do vary in how often they use social media, and in the activities they do while on Facebook, some of which can be helpful for their education. Some of the ways students use Facebook negatively predict GPA, and other FB activities actually positively predict GPA. And as well as affecting GPA, Facebook use can also affect student engagement which also is related to academic outcomes. Student engagement reflects the “time and effort students invest in educational activities….empirically linked to desired college outcomes” (as cited in Junco, 2012, p. 163), such as in-class and out-of-class interactions with faculty and peers, and involvement in “co-curricular activities”. A meta-analysis by Pascarella and Terenzini led them to conclude that student engagement and interactions with peers “maximizes persistence [to degree completion] and educational attainment” (as cited in Junco, 2012, p. 169).

Some researchers argue – and find – that “technologies that students are already using can be repurposed in ways that improve (emphasis added) engagement and educational outcomes” (Junco, 2012, p 169). Digital technologies have enhanced education in significant ways. As Aagaard (2015) notes, a laptop in class enables note-taking, information searches, statistical and math calculations, file sharing, document co-authoring (in Google Docs), and enhances critical thinking when students can search for information that might enhance or contradict the instructor, “a democratization of knowledge” (p. 93) and a profound change in education that both students and instructors appreciate.

But of course there’s also the dark side of digital tech in class, as texting or off-task use of phones or laptops to email, game, or check Facebook or UTube clearly distracts students from learning and storing the class content in memory.

Out of class, tech and Facebook distractions while studying also can be either damaging or enhancing, depending on the activity. According to Junco’s 2012 study of 2368 participants on Facebook use and student engagement, it is the activities we use them for that cause problems. He found that some FB activities were negatively associated with student engagement, as one would expect. But as with GPA, other activities students engaged in on Facebook were actually positively associated with student engagement.

Junco noted studies that found that 90% of students use social media, most actively engaging the site daily. Attending in any kind of a meaningful way to a chat or a text absorbs our attention. If they are important to us in any way, interaction with them is important and therefore takes our focus away from other tasks.

Time spent on Facebook in general (and therefore not studying); and non-communicative activities such as playing games and “‘checking up on friends” was related to lower student engagement. How often students engaged in Facebook chat was also negatively related to the time spent preparing for class, and students who spent more time chatting online reported more “academic impairment” because attempting to multitask (studying while on Facebook) has detrimental effects on cognition, and leads to performance errors in accuracy and reaction time (Junco, 2015). Yet Junco (2015) noted that 73% of participants said they were “not able to study without some form of technology”, and 38% admitted that they “couldn’t go more than 10 minutes” without checking their phone or laptop (p. 19). Aagaard (2015) also found students readily admitted to off-task use of technology. Students study with their Facebook on, messaging available, and their smartphones accessible for their immediate responses.

Activities on Facebook that Junco (2015) research found were positively related to student engagement were communicative activities such as commenting on friends’ posts or creating or responding to events.

In a recent study, Junco (2015) wondered if students at all levels (lower or upper levels) of a university degree are impacted in similar ways. Does your year make a difference? If it does, why? Other research has found that time spent on Facebook decreases as students age – it is perhaps an age related problem. If so, why would that be?

Junco (2015) surveyed 1774 students and discovered that “freshmen” – first year students – spend more time on Facebook while doing schoolwork (an average of 64 minutes per day) than juniors (third year) and significantly more than seniors (fourth year) (an average of 49 minutes per day). They also spent more time on Facebook while not doing schoolwork (an average of 48 minutes per day) than the other years, and significantly more than seniors (who were on FB an average of 31 minutes per day). Activities on Facebook differed as well. Seniors are less likely to post status updates, comment on content, use FB chat, post and tag photos and view videos.

For “freshmen”, there is a negative relationship between GPA, and using Facebook while doing schoolwork. However, there was a positive relationship between GPA and checking on friends through FB.

For seniors, private messaging and creating/responding to events was positively related to GPA, while spending time chatting on FA and viewing videos was negatively related.

How to explain these puzzling results? One possibility is the effect of “social capital” on student engagement: First year students may be using Facebook to maintain their previous networks of friends and to build and maintain friendships on their campuses. These relationship networks increase students’ “social capital”, their “relational resources” which the first year students value, and need – to strengthen relationship bonds, offer emotional support, reciprocated relationships, self-esteem, decrease psychological problems, and simply improve their quality of life (Junco, 2012). And which helps their academic success, too – student engagement research suggests that increased social capital from friendships on campus help students feel a connection to the university, and that can improve educational outcomes. But first year students have yet to learn the study strategies and academic skills they need for success in university – more than time management, note-taking and organization, they also need to learn the effect their technological multitasking has on learning, and how to regulate their study practices and inhibit distractions. So their attention to establishing and maintaining their relational resources for their relational needs interferes with and limits the cognitive resources they need to study.

Seniors have not only already built their social networks, but they have also learned how to study effectively, so use Facebook more judiciously.

Conclusion? With such a ubiquitous technological phenomenon so central and so potentially impactful, Junco suggests, let’s use it thoughtfully and intentionally to maximize academic benefits and student engagement, and use what we know about the other factors involved to minimize its disruptions.

So some advice: as we say to new drivers, multitasking on your phone while driving is very dangerous, and especially so for new drivers. So especially for first year students who do need to build those social networks – don’t try to multitask, decrease the FB time overall, and minimize the time you spend in chat, games and lurking. But using it to connect to fellow students in “real-world involvement” may help to increase your engagement and social capital.

Aagaard, J. (2015). Drawn to distraction: A qualitative study of off-task use of educational technology. Computers and Education, 87, 90-97. doi: 10.1016/j.comedu.2014.03.010

Junco, R. (2012). The relationship between frequency of Facebook use, participation in Facebook activities, and
student engagement. Computers and Education, 58, 162-171. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2011.08.004

Junco, R. (2015). Student class standing, Facebook use, and academic performance. Journal of Applied
Developmental Psychology, 36,
18-29. doi: 10.1016/j.appdev.2014.11.001