Poor literacy levels: could smartphone use be part of the problem?

I’m quoted a bit in this article on literacy levels within the Irish third level student population. It’s been a very frustrating academic year and I’ve been hugely disappointed by the quality of the work I’ve been getting.

The reason the work is so bad this year is that I decided, in the interest of my own physical and mental health, to stop spoon-feeding my students so much. In previous years I spend a huge amount of time reading drafts of student reports and providing feedback. However last year it occurred to me that students were simply using me as a proof-reader and I was, in fact, encouraging them to be sloppy.

So this year, I decided I would return to the old feed-forward approach, the approach that was the norm when I was a student. I told the students quite clearly what I expected of them (I always did that anyway) and I placed a large emphasis on the nuts and bolts of academic writing: producing clear and properly labelled graphs and tables, presenting graphs and tables in a logical order, linking the text to the graphs, and making sure to check that every sentence was grammatically correct and made sense. I emphasised that I would not be interested in convoluted discussions about the data; all I wanted was excellent presentation. For third level students (in their third year) who came into college on 480+ points, that’s not a big ask, is it? But what I got was shambolic even from ‘good’ students.  I’ve been struggling to figure out how students who are challenging for a first class honour can produce graphs and tables with no units, or wrong units; graphs where the independent variable is on the y-axis and the dependent variable on the x-axis; graphs where the axes labels run in to each other so that there is one giant number spanning the width of the x-axis; graphs where a linear regression is drawn through a highly-curved set of data – for no apparent reason.

I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that the modern student has a real problem with attention to detail and has an inability to ‘see’ their work in any kind of objective way. It’s more than carelessness because although some students do have an “ah sure it’ll be grand” problem, that is not the case with the high-performing students.

So I’m wondering if we are seeing the effects of too much smartphone use, a process where reading is often no more than scanning, and real thinking is rarely required.  The evidence on the detrimental effects of smartphone use is by no means conclusive but it’s something I think we need to be more and more conscious of when discussing student performance at second and third level.

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