Swipe to Learn: Unpacking Smartphone Usage to Support Studying

ErasmusX
8 min readJan 29, 2024
Written by Kevin Joseph, Kavin Varadharajulu, Jits Brouwer, Macarena Lara. Image by Tim Douglas.

Introduction

With the evolution of smartphones, their use and versatility have spread to every part of our lives. In congruence with this spread, the smartphone continues to develop, making it easier for people to accomplish complex tasks. As smartphone ownership increases over time, the idea of using this device to complement school learning becomes more relevant. In the Netherlands smartphone ownership increased to 98% of teenagers between 16 to 18 having a smartphone in 2016 (Petroc, 2023). Imagine that — nearly every teen is just a swipe away from the sum of human knowledge, or at least a funny cat video.

However, for smartphones to be included as part of the information and communication technology toolset, its efficacy in supporting learning must be justified. That is why at ErasmusX we are working on creating an innovative application that will help students to develop personal, social and study skills to improve their transition from high school to higher education. We will measure the effectiveness of this application when it is launched. In the meantime, we have conducted exploratory research to get insights on smartphone use from high school and higher education students from Rotterdam. We are thrilled to showcase our results with you!

Research Data

At ErasmusX, we surveyed 304 students to explore whether they owned a phone, whether they used their phone for study purposes, and what was the specific use of the smartphone for studying. In the Netherlands, High school consists of HAVO (General secondary education), VWO (pre-university secondary education), and Other. Higher education consists of HBO (applied higher education) and WO (University education). Due to the abundance of classification levels for education we simplified this and categorized them into something simpler: High School and Higher education. For this study, we collected information from 89 high school students and 213 higher education students (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Proportion of students in high school and higher education

We found that all students owned a phone and 77% used their phone for study purposes. Figure 2 shows that 88% of high school students and 73% of higher education students used their phone for study purposes and this difference was statistically significant (p = 0.002). Interesting, right?

Figure 2. Percentage of smartphone use to support studying by educational level

In our study, we identified and ranked twelve smartphone activities that support studying (Figure 3). The most common were “searching for information” (like looking up definitions) and “consuming information” (such as watching educational videos, reading online books, or listening to podcasts). Other notable activities included using “course resources” (like Moodle and Google Drive), “study applications” (e.g., Quizlet), “communication” (using WhatsApp for group chats and study queries), and “taking notes” on smartphones. Less frequent uses included listening to music during study sessions, using timers for study tracking, completing smartphone-based assignments, making study checklists, taking study breaks, and exchanging peer feedback.

Figure 3. Ranking of smartphone-related activities to support studying in the whole sample

We also compared the smartphone-related activities to support studying by educational level (Figure 4). We observed that the degree to which students used their smartphones for specific activities to support studying differed between high school and higher education students. High school students used their smartphones more often for “course resources” and “study applications”, while higher education students showed to use their smartphones more often for “searching for information” and “consuming information”.

Figure 4. Percentage of smartphone use for specific activities to support studying by educational level

Discussion

In exploring the smartphone usage patterns of students, we found a fascinating divergence between high school and higher education learners. High school students primarily turn to their mobile devices for academic applications and course-related materials — a trend reflecting their focused educational journey. In contrast, those in higher education exhibit a broader use of their devices, often employing them for searching and absorbing a wide array of information. Interestingly, despite these differences, both groups converge on a common ground: the use of smartphones as a key tool in their quest for knowledge. This usage reflects a broader shift in the educational landscape, where the ownership of learning is increasingly falling into the students’ own hands. It’s a trend where students are taking the initiative to independently seek out and understand new topics — a process known as mobile learning or ‘m-learning’ (Roberson & Hagevik, 2008).

Our research findings revealed another intriguing trend. Highschool students tend to use smartphones more frequently to support studying relative to their higher education counterparts. While smartphones offer many benefits, they also pose challenges for academic concentration. In response to this problem, many secondary schools have enacted policies that limit or prohibit the use of smartphones in the classroom. This issue was explored in the 2015 study by Beland and Murphy, which investigated the impact of smartphone use in high school classrooms. Specifically, the study found that enforcing a mobile phone ban improved student performance by an average of 6%. However, these results paint a complicated picture. The ban appears to have affected students differently depending on their academic performance. High-achieving students saw little improvement in test scores, while low-achieving students saw a sharp increase. As such, the relationship between smartphones and academic performance is nuanced and requires careful consideration.

In the scientific literature, there are mixed results about smartphone use to support studying. The negative impact of smartphones on learning and academic achievement has been focused on potential addiction and attention problems among students in class (Sunday, 2021; Delello et al., 2016; Biggs & Tang., 2011; Williams & Pence, 2011). While the positive impact has been focused on reducing the digital gap, encouraging collaboration among peers providing quick access to information, among others (Uben, 2023; Sha 2012; Traxler, 2009; Wang, 2009). For us, the key takeaway from this controversy about the effect of the smartphone to support education is how it is used, whether there is a clear educational purpose and self-regulation elements as part of the process. As the recent book by Moore says, “mobile learning can be done well under specific conditions and being mobile-mindful leads to better results rather than being mobile-resistant” (Moore, 2023).

Conclusion

As with many things, it’s not a one size fits all. The needs, pitfalls, and opportunities vary in different situations. The results of this research showed that students are using their smartphones for learning purposes, but we also observed that this was less frequent in higher education compared to high school students. High school students primarily used smartphones for course resourced and study applications, while higher education students were inclined towards search for information and consuming information. Both groups used smartphones for broadening knowledge and fostering communication, enhancing educational community cohesion. Furthermore, the discussion section was able to show that the generalized findings from ErasmusX’s research conform with already existing literature. We propose to actively keep exploring the students views on smartphone use to identify opportunities to create meaningful experiences and get the most out of the technologies to support education. We also encourage improved readiness, of both students and teachers, for the integration of technology into study and work environments to help design and ensure future-proof education.

References

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ErasmusX

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