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R U All There? Texting, Surfing, and E-Tasking in the Classroom and its Effects on Learning

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

FPD 3: Research on First-year Programs and Students, Part I

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1208.1 - 22.1208.22



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Paper Authors


Richard Whalen Northeastern University

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Rich, Beverly, and Sue are core members of the Gateway Team of full-time faculty in the College of Engineering at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. While they concentrate on first-year
engineering courses teaching across all engineering disciplines, they also teach specialty courses in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at NU.

Each of the NU team has published and presented papers on approaches and techniques in engineering education. Combined, Rich, Beverly, and Sue have earned several teaching awards and are proponents of active, engaging, and effective learning practices.

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Beverly K. Jaeger Northeastern University

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Susan F. Freeman Northeastern University

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R U All There?Texting, Surfing, and E-Tasking in the Classroom and its Effects on LearningWe –and our students– have all learned to multitask in our busy lives. People conduct multiple activitiessimultaneously, from talking on the phone while driving to checking text messages in the middle ofconversations. Given the pace of life these days and the availability of devices to keep us connected, ourculture has nearly come to expect that ‘mult-e-tasking’ will keep us from missing out on all life has tooffer. What happens when this perspective enters the classroom? What are the effects on learning and thequality of the classroom environment when students are in the habit of dividing their attention believingthat there are no adverse effects? There is mounting research evidence to support the notion that whileour society manages to multitask adequately, adding e-tasking to important activities such as driving andlearning can have detrimental effects not only on the tasker, but also those in their environment[1, 2, 3].Furthermore, there are social implications for failing to be fully present when more attention is given toelectronic media than to the individuals in our own presence.With this growing concern, faculty at Unnamed University reviewed the literature and conducted researchto evaluate and explore the in-class learning effects of e-tasking distracters. A first-year engineeringprogramming class was divided into Control and E-Tasking groups. The Control half of the class wasgiven a presentation by a faculty member to help them with a course project. The students were explicitlyand clearly instructed to switch off all cell phones, electronic mobile devices, and computers during thistime. At the end of the presentation, the group was given a content retention quiz and was questioned ontheir perceived retention of the presented material.Next, the other half of the class –the E-Tasking group– received an identical presentation, but wereallowed to have electronic devices available during this portion of class. From a location outside theclassroom, their Control cohorts texted them during the presentation. In addition, the students in classwere free (but not encouraged) to conduct other e-tasking activities like check email and surf the web ontheir mobile devices during the lecture. The E-Tasking group members were also given an identicalcontent retention quiz at the end of the presentation and were questioned on their perceived retention ofthe material from class.In addition, all student participants quantitatively reported the amount and types of e-tasking theyconducted while in class during the presentation and provided their opinions about using electronicdevices in the classroom. They also responded as to their own general e-tasking habits and theirimpressions of how distracting it may be to themselves, other students, and professors in the classroom.An open discussion session with the faculty and participating students followed the experimentalclassroom activities. Further inquiry was opened about how to potentially manage the e-tasking epidemicfrom an administrative and educational standpoint.Select results are provided below, revealing a more extensive e-tasking profile in terms of frequency andmethod when it is permitted/tolerated in class (Figure 1). This is not surprising given that contacts weredeliberately initiated from outside the classroom. However, this activity demonstrated a differentialbetween the Control and E-Tasking Groups with two compelling results: First, statistically significantlylower content retention scores were seen with the E-Tasking participants as compared to the Controlcohorts, p<.01, ( Figure 2).Despite the cultural perception that prevails with our students, individuals are capable of concentrating ononly a few things at a time and even that limit depends upon the type of tasks being performed. The fullpaper will report additional outcomes and impressions from the study. In addition, a review of classroommanagement strategies will be presented which may be used to generate awareness of the consequencesof ‘mult-e-tasking’ in the classroom and beyond. E-Tasking Activity per Student E-Tasking Activity per Student 5 5 4 4 4 4 3 3 3 Occurances 3 Occurances 2 2 2 2 1 1 1 1 0 0 d E-Taskers te E-Taskers tia ed sd Control n i itiat rw s d d* Control I /B rw ie * * In d B p l lied ed l* k / Re ep iv d * ta * Ch hkd R ce ive e e To tal C R ec n To R ea M ean Activity M Activity Figure 1. Average level of activity per student during experimental period. Activity primarily relates to texting, but also includes email checking and internet browsing. *Reveals statistically significant results. Retention of Material Retention of Material 8 8 7 7 6 6 5 5 4 4 3 3 2 2 1 Control 1 Control 0 0 E-Taskers E-Taskers Quiz Score* Quiz Score* Perceived* Perceived* Figure 2. Knowledge-retention profiles: actual and perceived. *Reveals statistically significant results.References:[1] Sterling College News (2010). Froese, A: Students Study Effects of Texting on Learning., accessed June 2010.[2] Glen, D (2010). Divided Attention: In an age of classroom multitasking, scholars probe the nature of learning and memory. The Chronicle Review, February 2010.[3] Shelton, JT, Elliot, EM, Eaves, SD, & Exner AL. (2009). The distracting effects of a ringing cell phone: An investigation of the laboratory and the classroom setting . Journal of Environmental Psychology Volume 29, Issue 4, December.

Whalen, R., & Jaeger, B. K., & Freeman, S. F. (2011, June), R U All There? Texting, Surfing, and E-Tasking in the Classroom and its Effects on Learning Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18695

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