Study: Smartphones Without Directed Learning Activities May Be Detrimental to Learning

First-time smartphone users in a recent Rice University and U.S. Air Force study found that the devices were actually detrimental to their ability to learn.

The yearlong, NSF-funded study followed 24 smartphone newbies at a major research university in Texas. Prior to the study, the participants were given no training on smartphone use and were asked about how they thought a smartphone would impact their school-related tasks, according to a press release. The students were then given iPhones and their phone use was monitored for one year.

The participants initially believed the mobile devices would help enhance their performance on homework and tests and result in better grades, but they reported the opposite at the end of the study. Researchers asked participants to rate their feelings on the following statements both at the beginning and the end of the study, from one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree):

  • My iPhone will help/helped me get better grades. In 2010 the average answer was 3.71; in 2011 the average answer was 1.54.
  • My iPhone will distract/distracted me from school-related tasks. In 2010 the average answer was 1.91; in 2011 the average answer was 4.03.
  • The iPhone will help/helped me do well on academic tests. In 2010 the average answer was 3.88; in 2011 the average answer was 1.68.
  • The iPhone will help/helped me do well with my homework. In 2010 the average answer was 3.14; in 2011 the average answer was 1.49.

While the study did not address the structured use of smartphones in the classroom, the findings have important implications for the use of technology in education, according to Philip Kortum, assistant professor of psychology at Rice and the study's co-author.

"Previous studies have provided ample evidence that when smartphones are used with specific learning objects in mind, they can significantly enhance the learning experience," Kortum said. "However, our research clearly demonstrates that simply providing access to a smartphone, without specific directed learning activities, may actually be detrimental to the overall learning process."

The full report, "You Can Lead a Horse to Water But You Cannot Make Him Learn: Smartphone Use in Higher Education" appeared in the July issue of the British Journal of Educational Technology. The paper was co-authored by Chad Tossell, an assistant professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy; Clayton Shepard, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering at Rice; Ahmad Rahmati, a senior research scientist at Broadcom Corp,; and Lin Zhong, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].