Mind & Body

There's a Surprising Reason You Shouldn't Take Your Phone Out in Class

In college lecture classes, many professors have a zero-technology policy. At least in theory. But it's easy, and common, for undergraduates to flout these policies. A new study gives one more reason to avoid checking your phone in class: You're not only hurting your learning, but also that of your classmates.

No Gadgets vs. Unlimited Gadgets

For one term, two sections of the same psychology lecture course, taught by the same professor at Rutgers University, participated in a tech experiment. In one section, technology was strictly forbidden. In the second, students could use phones, tablets, and laptops however they wanted — they just had to fill out a survey afterward indicating whether they used their tech for academic or non-academic purposes. To track both sections' absorption of the material, researchers measured the students' performance on in-lecture assessments and on course exams.

They found that while using technology during class did affect performance, it didn't happen right away. The two sections performed roughly the same on in-lecture evaluations, for instance. However, on the final exam, the tech-enabled section did five percent worse than their tech-free counterparts. That could mean the difference between an A and a B+. In other words, non-academic phone usage affected that section's retention of the lecture, but only in the long-term.

What's more surprising is that in the section where devices were allowed, all the students did significantly worse on the final — even the students who hadn't used their devices in class. Technology in the classroom, in other words, distracts everyone. Just having an active device in your vicinity makes it harder to pay close attention.

"To help manage the use of devices in the classroom, teachers should explain to students the damaging effect of distractions on retention — not only for themselves, but for the whole class," said Professor Arnold Glass, the study's lead author, in a statement.

Undivided Attention Is Underrated

Long-term memory is what's really at issue here. Students' short-term recall is relatively unaffected by their phones and other devices, so they feel like they're not missing anything while they, say, live stream a soccer game in lecture. (On mute! Respectfully!) It's only when the final exam rolls around — weeks and sometimes months after the relevant classes — that the difference between undivided attention and semi-listening becomes visible.

This is the insidious effect of technology. It doesn't always feel distracting, but having screens in your line of sight fractures your attention and hurts your long-term memory. Researchers have found something similar with cameras — photographing an experience actually makes you remember it less vividly. Giving something your undivided attention instead of documenting it with your phone is the best way to remember it forever.

Undivided attention can be hard to muster even when you turn your phone off, though. Having your powered-down phone nearby still hurts your cognitive performance, according to one study — you can only really be psychologically free of it if it's also far away.

In other words, the human brain is a complex system and you're not always conscious of everything it's up to. Even when you think you're giving something your full attention, little bits of your brain are focused on emails and texts and Instagram likes. (Sometimes bits of your brain are also literally asleep.) It's worth narrowing the scope of your attention when you can. Complete focus is a powerful tool.

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Written by Mae Rice August 17, 2018

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