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Veteran psychology professor changes strategy after taking hard look at classroom texting

They lie in wait like potholes on the road to effective learning in the classroom – the plethora of potential distractions that can derail a student’s ability to pay attention to the academic topic at hand, regardless of the teacher’s fervent efforts.

WCU psychology professor Bruce Henderson collaborated with then-graduate student Dakota Lawson in research into classroom texting, which is depicted in this photo-illustration.

WCU psychology professor Bruce Henderson collaborated with then-graduate student Dakota Lawson in research into classroom texting, which is depicted in this photo-illustration.

Bruce Henderson has witnessed the evolution of those classroom distractions in his 38 years of teaching in Western Carolina University’s psychology department. He says it used to be mostly old-fashioned chatting and daydreaming by students sitting in the back. Now, students show up for class loaded with an arsenal of personal communication devices that can instantly connect them with their friends and the Internet. How to deal with that?

After collaborating on a research project several years ago that looked at the effects of texting on student comprehension in the classroom, the veteran professor has changed his strategy, which previously was to be “pretty strict” about electronic devices. At that time, unless students were involved in an academic activity using laptops or phones, he requested they ignore their devices completely during class.

Henderson collaborated on the study with Dakota Lawson, a then-graduate student working on a master’s degree in psychology, and they described their study in an article, “The Costs of Texting in the Classroom,” published last summer in the journal College Teaching. The study participants were 120 WCU students enrolled in an introductory psychology course. Divided into three groups, the students watched a 10-minute video, with students in a “receiving only” group given pre-paid cell phones and sent three simple text messages spread throughout the video. They were asked to read the texts but not respond. Members of a “receive and respond” group were sent the same messages and asked to text simple responses. Students in a control group were not given phones.

At the end of the session, each student took a quiz based on the video content. Looking back, Henderson said the quiz was too easy, with a mean score above 75 percent for all three groups, but the control group had a significantly higher mean score than the two texting groups, which had scores that did not differ significantly. The study results indicated that texting can interfere with the learning of relatively simple material, and those results are consistent with investigations into classroom texting done by others, Henderson said.

Most of those studies “have involved rather simple presentations of low-level information,” but the decrease in comprehension is substantial, ranging from 10 to 20 percent, which is similar to the decline associated with laptop use, Henderson and Lawson wrote in the article. “If extrapolated over a course or applied to the learning of more complex material, these effects could make a major difference for students,” they wrote.

Bruce Henderson

Bruce Henderson

In the article, Henderson and Lawson listed five options that teachers have for dealing with phone-related distractions, including ignoring and competing with them, prohibiting them, educating students about the negative effects of phone use in the classroom, incorporating phone use into classroom instruction, and taking regular “technology breaks” to let the students satisfy their phone-checking habits. Henderson said he came across the technology break concept while engaged in background reading about cell phones, and he has incorporated that into the approach he uses now.

“I strongly request that they keep electronic devices out of sight, but midway through the class we take a 2-minute technology break,” he said. “When the occasional student breaks out the phone outside the break, I use the evil-eye technique, supplemented by my comments on quizzes or exams they did poorly on that indicate they would do better if they stayed off their phones.”

Henderson said he has found the technology breaks to be very beneficial. That strategy even prompted one student to comment in an evaluation, “The technology break is genius. I am able to pay attention better because I am not looking at my phone or trying to check it during the lecture.” From Henderson’s point of view, “I don’t have to feel like the students are being deprived – and no one explodes.”

Despite the distractions posed by electronic devices, Henderson said the news is not all bad for teachers. “Technology is always a mixed bag,” he said. As class sizes have increased, he has turned to tools such as PowerPoint. “On the whole, I think that has helped increase attention,” he said. “My writing on the board was always awful, and the integration of pictures and video in presentations is much smoother than using the old opaque projectors and TVs. I also have incorporated other classroom techniques like one-minute summaries and brief discussions that students have with their peers that help with attention issues.”

For more information about Henderson’s research, contact him at or 828-227-3784.

By Randall Holcombe

Categories | The Reporter

Photos | WCU News Services

Commencement 2017
Commencement 2017


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