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Message in the Mobile: What I Get From Seeing Serial Texters in the Classroom

01/10/2014 12:30 BST | Updated 30/11/2014 10:59 GMT

The joke goes like this: if you are an instructor, you can receive "instant feedback" on your teaching simply by observing how many SMS students send on their mobiles during class. If a student sends 20 text messages during your three-hour session, your lecture is probably lacking and has probably failed to capture much of their attention. If, on the other hand, a student only sends five texts, your lecture must be excellent!

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. Perhaps there is no effective way to stop them from doing so; indeed, they are adults who are capable of choosing their own life priorities so I feel no desire to play parent or policeman.

One thing is clear though. 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 in fact a direct correlation between frequent student texting and class performance. I rarely find the "A" students amongst the chronic texters in class.

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 SMS more.

Frankly, it really doesn't matter which one is cause and which one is effect. As I see it, extreme texting in class is damaging to a student's learning process. Besides, it can have consequences that go far beyond the classroom. First, 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). Second, constant texting can 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 go over well in staff or client meetings.

Another pattern that I've noticed has to do with note taking - or the lack thereof. Those students who SMS frequently are the same ones who don't take notes. And since I don't use PowerPoint slides in my lectures, it makes note taking all the more important. 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 SMS frequently in all their classes, they are effectively, and perhaps unwittingly, abandoning their entire education!

It's clear that frequent texters know that they should not be texting in class. This is evident: every time when I stand close to where they sit, they would quickly conceal their phones or simply put them on a desk in front of them as if to tell me: "Texting? What texting?" In all honestly, I can appreciate that it's hard to stay focused for the entirety of a three-hour class, and that it may be difficult for students to retain everything I say during a lecture. But the task of taking in and processing a lot of material would only be much harder if a student is having a text conversation at the same time.

So as much as it may seem like sending SMS 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: 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 SMS.