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Students Perform Best When Teachers Encourage Smartphones to Aid Instruction

Smartphone use by students has grown exponentially around the world, including in China. In a new study with a vocational school in China, researchers explored how using smartphones in the classroom affected students’ academic performance. The study found that allowing students to use smartphones during lectures reduced their performance on tests under certain circumstances and boosted their performance when the teachers actively asked students to use the devices to assist instruction.

The study, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the London School of Economics (LSE), and Houston University, appears as a working paper.

“The penetration of smartphones worldwide increased over the last decade,” explains Pedro Ferreira, full professor of information systems and public policy at CMU’s Heinz College, who is the corresponding author for this study. “Yet we know little about how allowing these devices into classrooms affects students’ performance, and research on the impact of information and communications technology on student performance reveals mixed results.”

In this study, researchers analyzed the effect of smartphones in the academic environment by focusing on how the devices affect attention, including how they induce learning and distraction and how the tradeoff between these behaviors affects performance. The study features two randomized controlled trials conducted in 2018 and 2022 with several hundred students between 14 to 23 years old, enrolled in eight majors, and studying Chinese.

Students were allocated into four experimental conditions: 1) smartphones banned; 2) smartphones allowed and used at will by students; 3) smartphones allowed, used at will by students, and teachers asked students to use the devices to assist instruction (by asking students to use a smartphone dictionary application developed for the experiment); and 4) smartphones banned, and teachers asked students to use a paper-based dictionary to assist instruction. Students’ performance was measured by the change in the scores they obtained in identical tests taken at the beginning and the end of the lectures.

Allowing smartphones in the classroom changed the behavior of the students and, consequently, their performance. On average, banning smartphones from the classroom increased students’ performance compared to allowing them to be used at students’ will. However, students’ performance was even better when teachers asked them to use the devices to aid instruction. Using the paper-based aid did not change students’ performance.

To unravel the underlying mechanisms driving these effects, the study used video feeds during experimental lectures, allowing researchers to code the time students spent learning and distracted with and without their smartphones. The increase in performance when smartphones were used to assist instruction occurred because students spent a larger percentage of time learning during the lecture using the device and because the positive marginal effect associated with learning outweighed the negative marginal effect associated with distraction.

The authors note that whether smartphones help or hinder instruction may depend on the subject studied and the context. They may also change when considering devices other than smartphones. Finally, they did not consider the long-term effects of smartphones on students’ performance.

“Our findings contribute to the literature on technology-assisted learning and offer practical and policy implications that teachers and schools can follow to cautiously allow smartphones in the classroom to improve student success,” suggests Pedro Ferreira.

“Specifically, our results support allowing smartphones into classrooms as long as teachers ask students to use the devices for learning purposes, even if they spend more time distracted than learning, and principals add programs to help students in non-information technology majors take advantage of the devices for learning”.

The research was funded by the Block Center for Technology and Society and by the Initiative for Teaching and Education Analytics, both at Carnegie Mellon University.


Summarized from a working paper, From Smart Phones to Smart Students: Learning Versus Distraction with Smartphones in the Classroom, by Deng, Z (Carnegie Mellon University), Cheng, A (London School of Economics), Ferreira, P (Carnegie Mellon University), and Pavlou, P (University of Houston). Copyright 2023. All rights reserved.

About Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy
The Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy is home to two internationally recognized graduate-level institutions at Carnegie Mellon University: the School of Information Systems and Management and the School of Public Policy and Management. This unique colocation combined with its expertise in analytics set Heinz College apart in the areas of cybersecurity, health care, the future of work, smart cities, and arts & entertainment. In 2016, INFORMS named Heinz College the #1 academic program for Analytics Education. For more information, please visit