Research Proposal: Effects of Digital Distractions during Learning on Attention, Cognition, and Academic Achievement

Dr. Janet Waters (Psychology)

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Effects of Digital Distractions during Learning on Attention, Cognition, and Academic Achievement

In recent years, hundreds of research studies have been conducted in the topic of the learning challenges, distractions, and study strategies of current Millennial students to determine the effects of these new challenges and distractions on student achievement. It was only ten years ago that the iphone was released, and almost immediately, instructors, psychology researchers, and students themselves noted the impact of the technology on student concentration and attention in and out of the classroom. A quick keyword search of the PsycInfo database using the terms “texting” and “class” yielded 46 recent studies, while the larger Academic Search Complete yielded 3,576 hits. The oldest in the Psyc Info Results List dates from 2005, and is titled Txting: the end of civilization (again)? by Victoria Carrington. Another memorable study by Amanda Gingerich and Lineweaver (2014) is called Omg! Texting in class = u fail 🙁 Empirical evidence that text messaging during class disrupts comprehension.

Apart from demonstrating that even psychology researchers can’t resist the self-conscious use of textspeak, research and theory in educational and cognitive psychology has already established the destructive effects on attention, learning and memory that can result from the myriad technological distractions in and out of class. Current research in psychology on the cognitive effects of the use of ICTs (Information and Communications Technology) by our Millennial generation of students, and cognitive theories of attention and memory, can explain why our information age can enhance education in some ways and provide serious challenges to learning in others.

During class and in study sessions, students must learn how to focus their attention to complete complex mental tasks while dealing with constant distractions like text messages, snapchats, and Facebook, and resisting the temptations of YouTube, internet surfing, and gaming. Much research has already been conducted on the outcome of these struggles, including studies by Junco and Cotten (2012) which found that students do commonly use these ICTs on a daily basis while doing schoolwork and that their use while studying is negatively correlated with GPA. The researchers speculate that these distractions “tax students’ capacity for cognitive processing and preclude deeper learning” (p. 505). Kirschner and Karpinski (2010) and Alexander (2013), among many others, also found Facebook users had lower GPAs and spend fewer hours a week studying. In class and out of class digital distractions are omnipresent on mobile phones, all compelling attention-grabbers distracting students from their studies. As one example among many, Froese, Carpenter, Inman, Schooley, Barnes, Brecht and Chacon (2012) found that subsequent quiz scores were significantly lower when students texted in class, by about 30% (from an average of 89% in the not-texting group to an average of 60% for the texting group). Bellur, Nowak, and Hull (2015) found that texting was a “dominant activity” both in class and while studying. Students who multi-tasked during a class had lower GPAs, and those who multi-tasked while studying spent more time studying because of inefficient study habits.

Therefore contemporary learners must learn more than the content of their course work; they must also learn how to use technology to enhance their learning, and develop strategies to manage attention and resist distractions from that technology (Brier, 2012) that might detract from it. Instructors face the same challenges in assisting student learning, both in and out of the classroom. Both students and instructors need to understand how students learn in their digital educational environments, and which teaching and learning strategies are successful and which ones are not, from reliable research evidence on the effect of ICTs on student achievement, and on the efficacy of study strategies students and instructors use to deal with these distractions.

Research in cognitive psychology (Reisberg, 2016) has established that truly acquiring knowledge and understanding, that is, a higher order comprehension that enables analysis and synthesis, depends on understanding complex material at a deep level. Understanding and remembering novel complex material takes controlled processes of attention and concentration, demanding engagement and mental effort. Memory and understanding is consolidated over time, unlike superficial rote learning that takes less mental effort. And the cognitive processes involved in such learning depend on a set of well-functioning working memory and long term memory systems. Memory retention in turn depends on a well-functioning set of perceptual and attentional systems that can enable the student to focus concentrated attention on the task at hand for extended periods while simultaneously inhibiting attentional capture by compelling distractions. From the early days of studying attention using dichotic listening procedures, researchers have discovered which attentional and memory processes are crucial in learning various types of material (Reisberg, 2016).

For example, research and theory in cognitive psychology in the topic of attention have long hypothesized an attentional resource theory, that attention is a limited resource and will be “triaged” to the most compelling stimuli. While it is possible for us to direct and focus our attention on a particular task or stimuli when we need to or wish to, the length of time and amount of content that can be attended to depends on a host of factors, such as the complexity and novelty of the material, the fatigue or stress the student is experiencing, the student’s working memory span, and the student’s ability to simultaneously concentrate on the material they are attempting to understand and remember, and to inhibit the automatic tendency to shift their attention to distractions. This is most difficult when the material is difficult and complex and the distractions are compelling.

And what is more distracting than the siren call of a new text or instant message or Facebook post? A text message or post is far more compelling of attention than the challenging math or logic problem, or the statistics presented in a psychology research article. Attending to the academic content takes mental effort. As just one example of research in this area, Fox, Rosen and Crawford (2009) studied a reading comprehension task concurrent with an IM conversation and found that participants took significantly longer to complete the task, and that their GPA was negatively correlated with the time they reported spending on IM. Numerous researchers (Cohen, 2012; Junco, 2012; Junco & Cotten, 2012; Kirschner & Karpinski, 2010; Rosen, Carrier, & Cheever, 2013) have confirmed that “time spent on Facebook” is “strongly and significantly negatively related to overall GPA” (Junco, 2012, p. 187).

The automatic habit of looking at, reading, and worse, answering a text irrespective of situation seems to be a difficult one to resist. Researchers found that many students in their classes keep their mobiles visible on their desk table beside their notebook and textbook – and they further discovered that if the mobile phone was visible, and the signal light flashed to indicate a text, email or post, the student invariably looked at it to read the text or email, and quite often picked it up to answer during the class.

The information age has profoundly changed education, arguably as profoundly as the printing press and the spread of literacy. Knowing the challenges and distractions our  students face, and what learning and teaching strategies will work best for them, will help instructors considerably as they seek to adapt to these profound changes.


Phase I

This study will begin with a literature review of current psychology research on this topic. A review and critical summary of hundreds of empirical research articles on the topic of the effect of ICTs on student learning and achievement will be undertaken.

Phase II


Participants will be enlisted from a small Canadian West Coast university, from a variety of programs.


Interview questions and a short survey will be constructed based on the literature search.


After Institutional Research Board approval, a mixed method study (interview and survey) will be conducted to gather data on the experiences of both students and faculty.

A qualitative theme analysis will be conducted to analyze the interview data, and the quantitative surveys will be statistically analyzed.

Further details regarding Phase II will be added to the proposal once the initial phase I is completed.


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Bellur, S., Nowak, K. L., Hull, K. S. (2015). Make it our time: In class multitaskers have lower academic performance. Computers in Human Behaviour, 53, 63-70. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.06.027.

Brier, N. (2012). Self-regulated learning: Practical interventions for struggling teens.

Carrington, V. (2005). Txting: The end of civilization (again)? Cambridge Journal of Education, 35(2), 161-175. doi:

Cohen, A. (2012). Higher education students’ perspectives of the relevance of the online social networking site Facebook to education. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences, 72(8-A), 2788.

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Froese, A.D., Carpenter, C.N., Inman, D. A., Schooley, J. R., Barnes, R. B., Brecht, P. W., & Chacon, J. D. (2012). Effects of classroom cell phone use on expected and actual learning. College Student Journal, 46(2), 323-332.

Gingerich, A., & Lineweaver, T. (2014). Omg! Texting in class = u fail 🙁 Empirical evidence that text messaging during class disrupts comprehension. Teaching of Psychology, 41(1), 44-51. doi:

Junco, R. (2012). Too much face and not enough books: The relationship between multiple indices of Facebook use and academic performance. Computers in Human Behaviour, 28(1), 187-198. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2011.08.026

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Kirschner, P. A., & Karpinski, A. C. (2010). Facebook and academic performance. Computers in Human Behaviour, 26(6), 1237-1245. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2010.03.024

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Reisberg, D. (2016). Cognition: Exploring the science of the mind (6th ed.). New York: W.W.Norton.

Rosen, L. D., Mark Carrier, L., Cheever, N. A. (2013). Facebook and texting made me do it; Media-induced task-switching while studying. Computers in Human Behaviour, 29(3), 948-958. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2012.12.001

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