Cell Phones in Class: A Faculty Divided

Students frequently use their phones while in class

Students frequently use their phones while in class

On a whim, I recently asked my students this anonymous clicker question: “How many times do you interact with your phone during a typical lecture?”

The graph at right shows their responses. I think it’s fair to eliminate the “2647” answer, and perhaps some of the other high numbers are exaggerations as well.

At the same time, I am not at all surprised that some students check their phones 10 or more times in a typical class. My classroom this semester has tiered seating, so I can see what each of my 70+ students is doing. Lots of them keep the phone right next to their notebooks, and they regularly check for updates. Some try to be discreet by interacting with their phone under the table, but it doesn’t take a genius to understand why a student would suddenly take such focused interest in his or her lap. Perhaps not surprisingly, I can also see that students sitting near the front don’t use their phones very much at all.

My results, while anecdotal, are somewhat similar to those reported recently in a brief article by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed. The article references a survey of 777 students, who report a DAILY rate of “student device use in class for non-class purposes” ranging from never (8%) to more than 30 times (15%). The largest group (35%) reported using their device in class 1-3 times per day. (I can’t explain why my students’ numbers are so much higher.)

The question is, what (if anything) should we do about it? The comments section of the article, plus conversations I’ve had with colleagues at iteach-biology, suggest that faculty are sharply divided on the issue. Some faculty consider smart phone use distracting and disruptive, whereas others say these technologies enhance active learning and should be encouraged.

Here are a few thoughts distilled from the “anti-phone” crowd:

  • If you impose and enforce a strict “no electronics” policy in your class, students will actually be relieved to not have to check their phones all the time.
  • Cell phone use should be punished by adding extra pages to writing assignments or extra questions to exams. Some instructors leave the classroom each time they witness an infraction of the “zero tolerance” policy.
  • If students expect faculty to devote full attention to the class, then according to the golden rule, students should not multi-task either.
  • Using mobile devices in class distracts not only the user but also people around the user.
  • Some faculty recommend short “phone breaks” during class. Others suggest having students corral their phones into a hanging shoe organizer for the duration of the class session.
  • A portable, 4G cell phone blocker can stop the problem before it starts.
  • A few camera-shy faculty strongly object to being photographed or videotaped in class.

Here are a few arguments in favor of allowing or even embracing phone use among your students:

  • We shouldn’t complain; we do it ourselves during faculty meetings.
  • Students need to learn to manage distractions on their own, and develop a sense of responsibility. There is no need for punishment because those who allow themselves to get distracted will do poorly on exams.
  • Faculty have a responsibility to make classes interesting enough to keep students engaged.
  • Mobile devices can be an asset; for example, instructors can open an on-screen communication channel so students can text/tweet their comments and questions.
  • Students can now use mobile clickers instead of purchasing dedicated clickers; these legitimate in-class uses for phones leave less time for distracting, off-task uses.

What do I think? I am not sure. I think laptop screens are a much more significant distraction to neighboring students than cell phones are, so I require laptop users to sit in the last two rows of my classroom. But I recognize that it takes time to get back into any task after you’ve mentally left it — I couldn’t find a credible reference for this notion in a brief internet search, but it is certainly consistent with my personal experience — so I am inclined to think that cell phone use is generally unhelpful to student learning. In fact, constantly checking a phone looks to me like an addiction; since it’s much more fun to check who just texted you than to concentrate on protein synthesis, having the phone constantly available seems like a bad idea. But in the end, although I periodically bring the perils of constant distraction to my students’ attention, I don’t see myself implementing a zero-tolerance policy. Students need to learn to take responsibility for their own behavior.

Still, I plan to share this article (Defeat Tech Distractions) with my students. It’s about 3 years old, but it has a host of common-sense techniques to keep from being bugged when you need to focus.

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One Response to Cell Phones in Class: A Faculty Divided

  1. Pingback: Laptops for Note-Taking? Doonesbury and Psychologists Weigh In | Teaching nonmajors biology

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