Student Multitasking in Class—What to do about it?

March 18, 2015

By Lynn Bartels

If any topic is guaranteed to get faculty riled up, it’s the topic of student multitasking in class. During many classes, students are distracted by their phones and/or laptops.  Student multitasking in class is a common occurrence. In a study of Marketing undergraduates, 94% reported receiving texts during a class, and 86% reported sending texts during class, and about a third of students surveyed believed that they could text and follow along with a lecture (Clayson and Haley, 2013). Yet, research has shown otherwise.  Research has shown that, in fact, divided attention has a negative impact on learning (Barak, 2012; Clayson and Haley, 2013; Fried, 2008).

What should you do about multitasking?  Faculty have all sorts of strategies for minimizing multitasking in class. Here are some examples:

Doing Nothing

Some faculty believe that since students are adults, they should make their own choices even if their bad choices lead to less learning and lower grades.


Faculty often include a firm ban on multitasking in their syllabus. Yet if the policy isn’t enforced, students quickly figure out they can get away with it. Also, as Linda Markowitz from Sociology remarked, faculty often get tired of being the police officer. Constant surveillance efforts can distract you as well as the students.


Surrendering your Phones

Alison Reeves from the Educational Leadership says she passes around a basket and asks students to put their phones in the basket. Students may have difficulty giving up their phones and there might be an occasion where a student is waiting to get an urgent message or the class could miss an e-lert.



When student multitasking is obvious, faculty may make a blanket statement to the class about noticing there is multitasking taking place and to please put away cell phones. To avoid disrupting class or confronting the students directly, some faculty may email the entire class or just the offending students to send the message about too much multitasking going on in class.  Some faculty report that students thank them for admonishing their classmates to refrain from multitasking because of the distraction it creates for them.


Blow Your Horn

One novel approach comes from Dan Segrist of the Psychology Department. He takes a large bicycle horn with him to class and sounds the horn when he observes cellphone or laptop distractions going on during class.



When students are obvious in their texting, Belinda Carstens-Wickham from Foreign Language and Literature puts them on the hot seat and directs questions to the texting student.


Make a Joke about it

Joel Nadler from Psychology says “I know when you are texting in class. Seriously no one looks down at their crotch and laughs.”


Bring Your Own Device

Kay Gaehle from Nursing embraces the use of laptops and cell phones and asks students to get out their devices to answer the questions being raised in class. Mark Poepsel from Mass Communications uses a live Twitter feed in class to allow students to ask questions through Twitter during the class.


Show them the Evidence

Studies show that not only do the students who multitask during class perform worse on exams but also those within view of others’ multitasking also received lower test scores (Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013). Presenting the evidence might deter some students.



Some universities are taking steps to increase mindfulness in the classroom to help students be fully present in the classroom through things like deep breathing, pausing, and reflection exercises.  Here is an example mindfulness activity that can be used in the classroom. “Ask students to write at the top of their notes, If I was going to be distracted by something today during class, it might be ___________________. I choose to set this aside during this class time" (Roush, 2015).


Student- Developed Classroom rules

The next two strategies come from Maryellen Weimer’s “Is There a Solution to Multitasking in Class?”  video (from our on demand video series). Consistent with her learner-centered approach to teaching, she suggests having students decide on the rules for the classroom. The class can identify distracting behaviors and agree to avoid them. I’ve tried this and students ban the same classroom behaviors that I would if I were writing the rules myself.  Allowing students to create the rules may give students a greater sense of investment in following them.


Demonstrating the Effects

After a class session where an abundance of multitasking was present, ask students to trade notes and see how many of the main points you covered in class were included in the notes and ask students whether there is a relationship between multitasking and poor note-taking. This can demonstrate to students that their multitasking does interfere with their note-taking and learning.


Use it as a Signal

One of the things that multitasking suggests to me is that I have lost my audience. I need to do something different to compete with the urge to multitask.  Students have been passive too long. Active learning activities can compete with multitasking. It can be hard to actively participate and multitask.



There is no perfect solution to student multitasking, but it is unlikely that multitasking is going to go away any time soon.  Multitasking has detrimental effects on classroom learning because it distracts the student, other students, and the instructor. How you handle it is likely to vary depending on your students, the course and you.  What other strategies have you tried?




Burak, L.  (2012). Multitasking in the university classroom. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 6(2), 1-12

Clayson, D. E. & Haley, D. A. (2013). An introduction to multitasking and texting:  Prevalence and impact on grades and GPA in marketing classes. Journal of Marketing Education, 35(1), 26-40.

Fried, C. B. (2008).  In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers and Education, 50 (3), 906-914.

Roush, K. L., (March 9, 2015).  Moving from multitasking to mindfulness.  Faculty Focus.

Sana, F. Weston, T. & Cepeda, N. J. (2013).  Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers and Education, 62, 24-31.

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