The joke among lecturers goes like this: you can receive "instant feedback" on your teaching simply by observing how many texts and social media posts your students send on their mobiles during class. If a student sends 20 messages during your three-hour session, your lecture is probably lacking and has likely failed to capture much of their attention. If, on the other hand, a student only sends five texts, your lecture must be excellent.
Student picture from Shutterstock
This may be a joke. But in recent years, many of my colleagues and I have noted an upswing in the frequency of students texting during class. Now a new study from Baylor University in the US has indicated that approximately 60% of college students admit they may be addicted to their phones. Researchers found that female students spend an average of 10 hours a day on their phones, while men spend nearly eight hours a day.
Perhaps there is no effective way to stop students feeding their addiction during lectures. After all, they are adults capable of choosing their own life priorities and I feel no desire to play parent or policeman.
'A graders' not the phone addicts
But one thing is clear. Even though students may text more during a boring lecture, the fact that they text frequently says a lot more about their performance in the classroom than it does about my lecture. According to my own observations over the last couple of years, there is a direct correlation between frequent student phone use and performance in class. I rarely find the "A" students among the chronic phone users.
Of course, you can argue that I've got the cause and effect wrong. Rather than concluding that those who engage in "extreme" texting during class learn less (and therefore receive poor grades as a result), maybe unmotivated students who are unwilling to work tend to spend more time on social media and texting.
Frankly, it really doesn't matter which one is cause and which one is effect. As I see it, spending a lot of time on a phone is damaging to a student's learning process. Besides, it can have consequences that go far beyond the classroom.
Bad habits for workplace
No one can aptly text and listen at the same time, and when texting trumps listening, students can miss out on valuable insights and crucial information (for their exams at least). Constant texting can also become a very bad habit that can be far more damaging in the professional world than in school, where a job, not just a grade, is on the line. Falling into the temptation to check text messages — and respond to them — may not be well received in staff or client meetings.
Another pattern I've noticed has to do with note taking — or the lack thereof. Those students who are frequently on their phones are the same ones who don't take notes. Perhaps this does not sound like a serious issue, but to me it is. Even though texting on the surface represents only a fleeting moment of diverted attention, it is a moment away from being engaged in learning.
Of course, some students are probably auditory learners who don't really need to take notes. But if you're not bothering to take notes and you're not an auditory learner, that omission inhibits the learning process. Perhaps of greater concern is that if students are frequently on their phones in all their classes, they are effectively, and perhaps unwittingly, abandoning their entire education.
So as much as it may seem like sending text is harmless and simply makes a class period go by more easily, it's at the cost of performance in the class: lower grades will drive home that point. It can also lead to a very harmful habit that could follow students into the professional world. Therefore, students should develop the resolve to resist texting during class or try to keep it to the minimum.
There is one last reason why students may be texting frequently — and I could be making a fool of myself here. All of this can most likely be explained by the fact that my lectures are simply lousy and boring. In this case, don't let me know via text.
Terence Tse is Associate Professor of Finance at ESCP Europe. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.