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Category: Active Learning

The ubiquitous cell phone and laptop have made student chat a common part of live classes, much to the consternation of instructors. Not only does it distract the teacher, but studies prove the common-sense intuition that distractions undermine learning (Blasiman et al., 2018). But a new study by Goodman and Moore (2023) comes to the surprising conclusion that some types of chat during class do not detract from learning and even have positive effects.

The study

The format of the study was to deliver a short psychology lecture to multiple groups of students via Zoom. For consistency, researchers used the same 1,644-word script for all groups, but some groups also received a scripted hypothetical chat between two students on various topics in the lecture. A control group received no chat messages, while a “moderate chat” group received four pairs of messages on different topics, and a “heavy chat” group received eight pairs of messages on different topics.

Nearly all the chat exchanges began with a simple question about the material (e.g., “What’s another example of a morpheme?”) to which the other student provided an answer. The only outlier was when the lecturer asked, “In your head, try and estimate how many morphemes exist in the average adult English speaker’s mental lexicon,” and each member of the chat pair gave an answer.

Afterward, each group filled out a test and questionnaire that measured comprehension and confidence in learning. The study found that there was no significant difference in the level of lecture comprehension between the three groups, meaning that chat did not undermine learning. It also found that the students in both chat groups reported significantly more confidence in their learning than the no chat control group.


We can tease out some interesting insights from this study if we look carefully at its format and results. The researchers correctly note that instructors introduce their own distractions into lectures when they use text-heavy slides. The is the unfortunately still-common “Death by PowerPoint” format in which the instructor simply projects their notes as bullet points. The text merely repeats the verbal message in a different medium, not adds to it, and so the student is left trying to follow along by reading the text at one speed while listening at another—like trying to listen to a song being played at two speeds at once.

The researchers note that this format demonstrably undermine learning, and so their lecture spoke the message while using the chat to add examples or questions. The text chat did not repeat the message. In this way, it enhanced rather than distracted from learning.

This is an important point that instructors who want to use chat in their live events, whether face-to-face or online, will want to implement: the chat should build on what is said. This could be tricky in an actual class where instructors do not have the benefit of a pre-scripted chat to feed students. Instructors will need to find ways to ensure that student chat stays on topic. One option is to assign someone to lead and moderate the chat. Instructors could choose students on a rotational basis, giving them direction on what types of messages to post, how to cut off the chat if needed, and ways to redirect the chat so it doesn’t linger on material already covered.

As with all studies, we can raise some questions about the results. First, the researchers found only that the chat did not undermine student learning, not that it improved student learning. The raw data actually shows that the moderate chat group’s mean test score was a bit higher than the no chat group’s, while the heavy chat group’s was a bit lower. This could indicate that a small about of chat helps learning, while a lot becomes a distraction. Although the test score differences were not statistically significant in this study, this possibility may warrant additional research.

Additionally, the chat was noticeably built around short questions that call for quick replies. These bear a striking resemblance to the kinds of questions used in audience-response systems during live events to help with retention by initiating active learning. Did the chat simply serve the same purpose as an audience-response system? If so, would sprinkling these audience response questions into a live event do as well as (if not better than) leaving the chat up to the students? This is another topic for future research.

The important takeaway is that some amount of student chat during a live event, if restrained to the topic at hand, might improve learning. Again, some type of moderation system might do the trick. Instructors want students to actively think about and question the content they read and hear—a kind of internal chat. A well-designed and controlled public chat in live classes might externalize this process.


Blasiman, R. N., Larabee, D., & Fabry, D. (2018). Distracted students: A comparison of multiple types of distractions on learning in online lectures. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 4(4), 222–230. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000122

Goodman, S., & Moore, E. (2023, June). To chat or not to chat: Text-based interruptions from peers improve learner confidence in an online lecture environment. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 23(2), 29–56. https://doi.org/10.14434/josotl.v23i2.33413