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During boring classes, texting is the new doodling

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MICHAEL RUBINKAM | November 26, 2010 10:44 AM EST | AP

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WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — When his professors drone, Dan Kautz whips out his phone.

Kautz, a senior at Wilkes University, might send a text message to someone across the room – "I can't wait to get out of here" – or make plans with his roommates. He's become so adept at texting during class that he can tap out a message without even looking at the screen, making it appear as if he's paying attention to the instructor when he's really chatting with his girlfriend.

"Every single person I know texts in class at least occasionally," said Kautz, a communications studies major from Pelham, N.Y.

It's no surprise that high school and college students are obsessive texters. What alarms Wilkes psychology professors Deborah Tindell and Robert Bohlander is how rampant the practice has become during class: Their recent study shows that texting at the school has surpassed doodling, daydreaming and note-passing to become the top classroom distraction.

The anonymous survey of 269 Wilkes students found that nine in 10 admit to sending text messages during class – and nearly half say it's easy to do so undetected. Even more troubling, 10 percent say that they have sent or received texts during exams, and that 3 percent admit to using their phones to cheat.

The phenomenon is part of a broader revolution in the way young adults communicate. Most prefer texting to e-mail and certainly to talking on the phone, Tindell said.

Indeed, most view texting as their right.

Almost all the students surveyed by Tindell and Bohlander said they should be allowed to have their phones in class. And a clear majority – 62 percent – said they should be allowed to text in class as long as they're not disturbing those around them. About one in four said texting creates a distraction.

"Students these days are so used to multitasking ... they believe they are able to process information just as effectively when they are texting as when they are not," Tindell said.

Tom Markley, 21, of Lehighton, Pa., is constantly trading texts with his friends and his girlfriend during class.

"If it's a really boring class, texting is a nice alternative to having to sit there and focus," said Markley, a senior computer science major at Wilkes.

But, he conceded, "there are definitely times when it takes away from your concentration. Suddenly you'll be at the end of the period and say, 'What did we do today?'"

Tindell instituted a no-texting policy as a result of the study, which has been presented at a pair of academic conferences. She tells students that if she even sees a cell phone during a test, its owner gets an automatic zero.

One Syracuse University professor has taken an even harsher stand.

Laurence Thomas, a popular philosophy professor whose courses have waiting lists, walked out on his class of nearly 400 students last week when he caught a couple of students fiddling with their phones instead of paying attention to him.

It wasn't the first time Thomas has cut a class short because a student broke his no-texting rule. To Thomas, texting saps the class of its intellectual energy.

"My job is to engage the class, to give them stuff to think about," he said. "They need to respect that."

While Thomas keeps his eyes peeled for illicit texters, Tindell said most professors are likely as clueless as she used to be about the ubiquity of in-class cell phone use. Many of the surveyed students said their professors would be shocked if they knew about their texting habits.

Kautz said most of his professors either don't notice or don't care if students text during class time. He doesn't believe a blanket prohibition is the right way to go.

"There are people who can text and still be focused on class," he said. "If my roommate is short on quarters for laundry and wants to borrow some, of course I'm going to want to text him back right away and not hold him back for 40 minutes."

But he acknowledged that some students text excessively.

"I know some people will sit there for the entire class just typing away," he said. "I don't even know why they bother coming."

Chelsea Uselding, 20, a Wilkes junior from Chicago, sends an average of 150 texts a day. But she's the rare student who doesn't text during class – viewing that hour or two as a "nice break" from the phone and its unceasing demands on her time and attention.

There's also a practical reason why Uselding, a dual major in psychology and international studies, idles her thumbs.

"I'm paying all this money to listen to the person speak, and I figure it's a waste of my time if I'm not going to be listening," she said.

Some high school and college teachers have sought to adapt text messaging to classroom use, texting assignments; asking questions of the class and having students respond via text, with the results shown on a large screen; and allowing students to text questions or comments during class.

"Our experience has shown that positive results can be achieved by encouraging students to bring their mobile phones out in the open and to use them to contribute to the class, and to their own learning – that is, by joining them instead of trying to beat them," New Zealand scholars wrote in a 2009 paper published in the journal Communications of the ACM.

Tindell and Bohlander advise professors to have clear, written policies on texting, to circulate around the classroom and make frequent eye contact, and to avoid focusing all their attention on their lecture notes or PowerPoint presentations.

Tindell does allow students to text before class starts – and almost all of them do.

"If they are going to go through withdrawal," she quipped, "they might as well get their fix."