Comments on the research on students texting in class

True story! 75 students were nervously gathering for a tough final exam in a difficult course. I gave the usual spiel to turn off their mobile phones for the exam, not mute or on vibrate, turn them off and put them away in their bags, not in their pockets, for exam security. I joked that even though I always say this, sure enough, someone’s phone rings in the middle of the exam, so double check you actually turned it off. And then I wait while they do that.

It only took a half hour before that, yes, inevitably happened again, just when the students were getting focused and productive in their exam. The mobile of a student sitting right in the middle of the classroom rang with a loud and obnoxious ring tone. Everyone looked around, distracted, while the student frantically hunted through her bag for the phone. It rang four times before she found it. Unbelievably, she pulled it out, and looked at it! I said “Turn it off, now”.

The ringing stopped. The rest of the students settled back to work, with a lot of rustling and squirming. The offending student was red with embarrassment.

Another twenty minutes went by. Much of the class was starting the really tough essay questions, and writing frantically. Then – yes, and I’m not kidding – the same phone rang again! Another four loud and obnoxious rings before the student found it and silenced it. The other students began to laugh at her, the giggles multiplying around the classroom, doubling the distraction.

This is a real puzzle – why would a student come to an exam with their phone, and leave it turned on even after being told to turn it off? Why would she then look at it after it rang in the middle of an exam? And still not turn it off? And what effect did this interruption have on her, and on her classmates’, exam scores?

And what can we all do about it? Students and faculty, we are all in this together!

With iphones on the market for ten years, texting has become ubiquitous, and high-frequency texting occurs in the classroom as well as in other contexts. One of the first topics in my literature review is about texting in class – who does it, how many do it, why, and what are the effects of the distraction. Lots of psychology research has already been done through surveys and experiments and I’ll summarize their findings here.

But before I do that, I have another true story.  I was in a group meditation recently, and of course we were asked to turn off our mobiles before the meditation began. And the same thing happened. The mobile phone belonging to the woman sitting behind me rang loudly, completely disrupting the meditation for everyone in the room. And then, not ten minutes later, it rang again. She hadn’t turned it off when reminded. And she still didn’t turn it off after it rang the first time. And another time during a lecture. And another occasion in yoga class…

Social forces and rules of etiquette….

Wouldn’t you think that even if we might forget our phone-etiquette while in public, we would at least remember during an exam? Or during a group meditation? Or in a dangerous situation like driving or crossing a busy street? Clearly, we have already become so attached to or even addicted to our techy BFF that we don’t – or can’t – simply TURN. IT. OFF.

Why do people text? Anywhere, anytime, any situation

For emotional reasons. Social media use and texting are correlated with emotional distress (as cited in Clayson & Haley, 2012). It may be that when people are distressed, they text, to express their distress to a friend and reach out for emotional support.

Or because within a relationship, there is an implicit social contract to respond when someone communicates with us. We feel a need to reply, and to reply promptly, and that ubiquitous ding of the text causes us to feel distressed until we can reply.

Texting offers communication that can occur any where and any time and so may provide a way to keep social connections strong and to express distressing feelings to a caring audience. However, since the 24/7 availability goes both ways, there is also the emotional burden of always being “on call”, of receiving texts at any time from others in one’s social network, and feeling the “social necessity” to reply (Clayson & Haley, 2012).

Or the correlation could result from distress caused by the content of texts people receive. That is, what they texted you – bad news, or criticism, or reminders of stressful situations.

In any case, with our phones on and available 24/7, we are in danger of being at their beck and call, passive reactors to its stimuli, rather than creative actors in our personal worlds.

In its short history, texting has already become a behavioural addiction (Clayson & Haley, 2012). Previous studies indicate 20% to 29% of adolescents and young adults feel addicted to their mobile phone use, and “hypertexter” adolescents (a self-reported average of 120 or more texts per day) have been found “to have a number of social, adjustment and psychological issues” (p. 27). They were more depressed, more likely to be binge drinkers or to use marijuana, to have skipped classes and to receive lower grades (Clayson & Haley, 2012). In part, texting becomes an addiction because receiving a text is an immediate social reward that provokes the dopamine reward system in the brain. Humans are social animals, and built to feel pleasure at social acceptance and pain at social rejection.

Or is it simply an automatic habit? Compulsive, addictive, or habitual behaviour that is difficult to control, can all result from the reward system, and the fact that behaviour that is simple, easy to do, and very well practiced becomes automatic. Automatic processes are so mindless and well practiced they can be difficult to consciously retrain and change. Controlled processes are enlisted for difficult, novel, complex or abstract tasks, and these take tiring mental effort (many people complain about doing their taxes. For me, its marking. That’s never automatic, it always demands concentration and absorption).

Texting in class: Burns (2010) noted that mobile phone use and misuse in the classroom has a negative effect on the instructor’s teaching and the students’ learning, and that students may not be aware that their calls or texting may be a problem for the instructor and fellow students. Others are aware, but continue to do it anyway. Why?

Campbell (2006) surveyed faculty and students, and found that ringing mobile phones were strongly perceived as a problem and that there was support among students for restricting mobiles in the classroom, although  younger participants (in 2006) were more tolerant of other students ringing phones. In 2010, Burns surveyed 197 graduate students and 19 faculty in health programs on several campuses, and both groups said mobile phone ringing during class was a distraction. While faculty respondent reported they never used their cell or texted during class, 35% of the students agreed they used their phone and 53% texted during class.  And the paradox is that while 85% find mobiles distracting, and 61% were aware of the mobile phone policy, over half of the student texted or even used their phone in class, indicating that their experience of the distraction did not inhibit them from the behaviour.



As the students in her study were graduate students in health care programs, Burns was concerned that this behaviour could occur in the students’ clinical work in their eventual workplace. Professional behaviour should be expected in the classroom as in the workplace. Sure, students are embarrassed when their phone rings or buzzes in class, or during an exam, yet students continue the behaviour. She suggests a mobile phone policy for the program, and requesting students leave their mobiles in lockers during exams.

Olufadi (2015) surveyed 286 students at two Nigerian universities and found that the only significant predictor of students’ academic performance was time spent calling on their phones, while other possible variables, such as addiction, dependence, multitasking, time spent using social media.

Like Burns, many researchers and instructors suggest formulating a no-mobile policy and discussing with the students why. Clayson and Haley (2012) described their experience of a class during which students were texting. The instructor stopped the class and explained that texting in class is disrespectful of the instructor and considered to be unprofessional. While the students seem to accept the comments, when the class resumed they began texting again. Other instructors have appealed to classroom etiquette, or used incentives (such as grades), or their authority. However, unlike other disruptive classroom behaviours, Clayson and Haley observed that texting has become such an automatic behaviour that students will text irrespective of the situation, the circumstances, or the rules (or of their own awareness of its disruption to their and their fellow students’ learning (Burns, 2010)).

Williams et al., 2011 (as cited in Clayson & Haley, 2012) found that among education majors, 73% agreed it was unprofessional to text in class, but 79% responded that they did anyway.

Clayson and Haley (2012) reviewed previous research and found that among college students, rates of  texting in class ranged from 79% to 92% and Gonder (as cited in Clayson & Haley, 2012) found 40% sent or received 20 or more during each class (!),

Etc from Clayson and Haley (2012)


Kuznekoff (2013) conducted a three-group experiment to study the impact of mobile phone usage in class on student learning. Participants watched a video lecture followed by two assessments. Kuznekoff found that the group who did not use their mobiles wrote 62% more and more detailed information, and were able to recall more. The result was that these participants grades were a one and a half higher letter grade on the subsequent multiple choice test.

Lee, Kim and Mendoza (2017) conducted a four group experiment, varying the mobile phone possession and usage during a 20 minute lecture in which text messages were sent to the phones.  Those who had their mobiles removed performed best on the subsequent test.

Froese, Carpenter, Inman, Schooley, Barnes, Brecht, and Chacon (     ) experiment….. students expected to lose 30% and did lose close to 30%.

Can’t we multitask?

Given that texting occurs in class, students may believe that they are able to handle both attending to the class lecture and texting…..

But no.


Turn it off.