Study: Allowing smartphones in class lowers grades — even for students who don’t use them

The study also showed that students who didn’t use electronic devices but attended lectures where their use was allowed also performed worse on tests.

Students in a University of Missouri lecture hall

Students who use smartphones during lectures are less able to retain course material over the long term, new research suggests.

The study, published in the journal Educational Psychology, also showed that students performed worse on exams even when they didn't use smartphones or laptops during class but attended lectures in which they were allowed.

“Many dedicated students think they can divide their attention in the classroom without harming their academic success – but we found an insidious effect on exam performance and final grades," lead researcher Arnold Glass, a professor of psychology at Rutgers–New Brunswick's School of Arts and Sciences, told Rutgers Today.

For the study, researchers tracked the performance of two groups of Rutgers–New Brunswick cognitive psychology students, 118 in total, as they took the same course over one term. The course was identical for both groups of students, but only one group was allowed to use electronic devices during the lectures; the other wasn't.

The majority of students used electronic devices when allowed, while only six students never used them at all. It seemed to make a crucial difference on final grades.


Glass et al.

Interestingly, the results showed that using electronic devices had no effect on students' ability to answer questions about course material taught that same day. However, it did seem to make students perform worse–by about 5 percent–on unit and final exams, suggesting that students' ability to retain information over the long term suffers if they divide their attention when material is being taught.

The researchers wrote that dividing your attention can hurt your long-term retention abilities because you ultimately spend less mental resources on mnemonic activities, such as answering quiz questions in class that will later show up on a final exam.

“This finding demonstrates for the first time that the main effect of divided attention in the classroom is not an immediate effect of selection or switching on comprehension but a long-term effect of divided attention on retention," the researchers wrote.

Glass suggested that teachers warn students of the counterproductive effects electronics can bring to the classroom.

“To help manage the use of devices in the classroom, teachers should explain to students the damaging effect of distractions on retention – not only on themselves, but for the whole class," he said.

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