Butler University Assistant Professor of Psychology Mandy Gingerich isn’t sure whether students should be allowed to text message in class, but she’s positive of one thing: Those who text during class get significantly lower quiz scores.

Over the past three semesters, Gingerich has conducted an experiment in her Cognitive Processes course where she assigns half the students to text during a lecture. The other half simply listens to her talk. Afterward, both groups take a quiz on the content of her talk.

The result: Students who listened without the distraction of texting scored an average of 19 points higher than their texting counterparts. In the spring 2011, the non-texting group averaged an 84.7 percent, compared with 59.3 percent for those who texted. That’s the difference between a B and an F.

“It’s not going to be true across the board that everyone’s impaired, but there’s evidence to suggest that as a group, the multi-taskers were definitely impaired,” Gingerich said.

Gingerich and Butler colleague Tara Lineweaver, an associate professor of psychology who has conducted a similar experiment in her own courses, are writing up their findings for the journal Teaching of Psychology.

Gingerich said her research stemmed from conversations with faculty colleagues about whether texting should be allowed in class. Some professors want to ban it completely because it’s rude and distracting; others say students should be free to decide whether they can text and still pay attention.

“I’m still struggling with where I am,” she said. “I find it disrespectful and rude – it is distracting – but at the same time, I don’t feel like I want to or need to micromanage the students. They’re adults, and I want to encourage them to make their own decisions and to think independently and to deal with the consequences. And if that means suffering on an exam because they were text-messaging during a lecture, well, that’s their decision to make.”

She talked to other psychology professors at the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, where one discussion point was the effect texting has on students’ comprehension. While there have been many studies on texting while driving, and on divided attention, Gingerich did not find research on texting in the classroom.

In her experiments, she gave a 10-minute lecture about time management – something not covered in the curriculum, so students assigned to text-message during the class didn’t miss any course content. The students assigned to text were given a “script” of texts and responses so they didn’t have to think about what to write in their messages, which would have divided their attention further.

All the students were aware they would be taking a quiz about the content of the lecture immediately afterward.

“There were several elements in the favor of students who texted,” Gingerich said. “The questions were easy, the material was easy and their conversation was already set. Yet sure enough, they were statistically significantly worse when they were texting.”

Gingerich said she still isn’t sure whether to prohibit texting in her classes. But now, she can at least tell her students what the results will be if their attention is divided.

Mandy Gingerich earned her doctorate in cognitive psychology from the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on how factors such as mood and emotion can affect our ability to accurately monitor the contextual details of our memories. She is in her third year teaching at Butler University. To schedule an interview with Gingerich, contact Marc Allan, (317) 940-9822 or mallan@butler.edu.

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