College students limit technology use when exams loom

Students use libraries as a reprieve from technological distractions.

Students use their campus library to inoculate themselves from the onslaught of electronic communication that permeates their social and academic lives, especially when tests are just weeks away, University of Washington (UW) researchers say.

More than 500 college students on 11 campuses last spring said retreating to the library helps limit technological distractions when they need to prepare for critical exams, midterms, and finals, with some students using social media sites as a reward for studiousness, according to the UW research, published Oct. 12.

Even when college students need the web for study purposes, six in 10 said they only had one or two websites open at once.

The UW researchers charged that college students, when facing academic “crunch time” as course grades hang in the balance, pull back on their otherwise constant use of laptops, smart phones, and computer tablets—all potential “endless source[s] of distraction,” according to the study.

Alison Head, a research scientist at UW’s Information School and co-director of the study, said the findings “belie conventional wisdom about the multitasking generation—always online, always using a variety of IT devices to communicate, game, and do their homework.”

She added: “Our findings suggest students may be applying self-styled strategies for dialing down technology when the pressure is most on them.”

Students’ concerted efforts to focus on class readings, notes, and other study materials didn’t mean popular time-killing sites were completely eliminated from their library study sessions.

Eighty-five percent of students interviewed by UW researchers at four-year institutions had checked Facebook and eMail messages in the previous hour.

There was little overlap in the websites students used while studying in their campus library, although the most common sites opened on a student web browser were Facebook, a personal eMail account, and a learning management system such as Moodle.

Corinne Gregory, an author and expert on social skills, said that nearly half of the students surveyed maintained grade point averages above 3.0. Those students, she said, had already proven they were disciplined enough to avoid technology-based distractions.

“What impact is technology having on those students who aren’t pulling in B+ to A- grades?” Gregory said. “The paper seems to imply that students are handling multitasking quite well, and that technology isn’t really having much negative effect on studying. I don’t think it really reflects what’s happening in the broad base of college-age students.”

College students said they don’t eliminate Facebook from study time because they use the social site as a well-deserved break after the “cognitive drudgery” of reading and reviewing notes and class lessons.

“If I get done reading a chapter, then I get on Facebook as a reward,” one student said.

Students quoted in the UW study said they flock to the library to study in part because the surroundings—endless shelves of books they rarely use—make them feel “studious,” “contemplative,” and “productive.”

“For many students, the real allure of the library is as a place of refuge and not as a direct source of information and support,” the researchers wrote, suggesting that campus library officials reevaluate the library’s role in teaching and learning so they remain relevant as more than just a retreat from the dormitory.

“Without this kind of soul-searching and updating of the library’s traditional mission, we are concerned that these spaces may become less and less relevant to research and learning,” they wrote.

The ease of checking Facebook, Twitter, eMail accounts and various other online social tools on smart phones and tablets has created an academic distraction unlike any generation of college students has ever faced, Gregory said.

“I think this fragmented way of operating isn’t always healthy,” she said. “It’s like a self-inflicted [attention deficit disorder]. While college-age students may be able to control this to some extent, when it’s crunch time, I see that in younger students it is having a negative effect on their ability to concentrate and focus.”

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