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Wilkes University Professors Examine Use of Text Messaging in the College Classroom

Contact: Vicki Mayk

Teachers of the past had to be concerned about students passing notes in class. Today’s educators have a much greater challenge with the advent of cell phone technology, and its prevalence in the classroom. A study by two Wilkes University professors shows that texting is a greater problem than educators might believe. They also suggest that classroom management strategies can potentially minimize texting in class.

Wilkes University psychology professors, Drs. Deborah Tindell and Robert Bohlander, designed a 32-question survey to assess the text messaging habits of college students in the classroom. In total, 269 college students, representing 21 majors, and all class levels, responded anonymously to their survey.
The study showed that 95 percent of students bring their phones to class every day and 91 percent have used their phones to text message during class time. Almost half of all respondents indicated that it is easy to text in class without their instructor being aware. In fact, students frequently commented on the survey that their professors would be “shocked” if they knew how much texting went on in class.  
Almost all students  -- 99 percent -- indicated that they believe they should be permitted to retain their cell phones while in class, and 62 percent said they should be allowed to text in class as long as they don’t disturb their classmates. It appears that cell phones ARE disturbing to some, however. About a quarter of the students stated that texting creates a distraction to those sitting nearby, and about 75 percent have been disturbed at least once by the ringing of another’s phone.   Almost a third of those surveyed speculated that the student sending the message would be affected as well through a loss of attention and/or poor grades in the class.
The ease and prevalence of texting in class raises concerns about using phones during exams. About 10 percent of those surveyed indicated that they have sent or received text messages during exams., and 3 percent admitted to transmitting exam information during the test. Students appear to be getting more savvy about sending text messages in ways that are difficult to detect, and educators may not be as aware of this practice as they need to be in order to enforce academic honesty. 
There are practices that can be adopted by instructors to minimize the use of text messaging in the classroom. Both Tindell and Bohlander have modified their classroom management policies to incorporate what they have learned from their survey. Their findings are relevant to teachers at all grade levels, and suggest that teachers need to take steps to ensure a positive academic work environment for their students.
Tindell and Bohlander have the following suggestions, based on feedback on their survey:
  • Have a clear, written policy about cell phone use and enforce it consistently. State that phones must be out of sight and turned off during class. Make penalties clear, such as losing points or dropping a letter grade for unauthorized cell phone use. Penalties can be applied to attendance or participation credit by assuming that if a student is texting in class, they are not “present.”
  • Classroom design is an important component in curtailing cell phone use. The smaller and more intimate the classroom setting, the more difficult it is to text, students say.   Desks that do not permit hidden cell phone use are helpful as well. If the classroom contains columns or other visual obstructions, instructors may want to prevent students from sitting in seats that are obscured from the instructor’s view.
  • Instructors should circulate around the classroom, and spend some time in the back of the classroom. Teachers should avoid focusing their attention on the blackboard, lecture notes, or on projected images at the front of the room, and instead pay attention to the activities of the students, making frequent eye contact. Survey respondents indicated that it is easier to text in class when the instructor is not paying attention to the students in the class.
Tindell became interested in studying text messaging in the college classroom after becoming aware of texting in her own classroom. She wanted to talk to a student who was not in class one day and asked a classmate to convey the message, assuming it would be after class. Tindell was surprised when she returned to her office to find an email from the absent student sent within minutes of the initial request, while class was still in session. This was particularly startling because Tindell had not been aware that any text message communication between the two students had taken place. This led her to want to learn more about the use of text messaging in the college classroom.
Published On: 11/29/2010
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