Saturday, November 8, 2014

Cell Phones and Other Distractions

As we work to put together a university policy on cell phone usage, I thought it might prove useful to discuss what teachers can do--policies and bans notwithstanding-- to lessen the kinds of distractions cell phones can create in our classes. 

Mary Ellen Weimer, in a Teaching Professor blog, describes an interesting way to make the learning environment a shared responsibility.  She suggests asking students (preferably in small groups) to make two lists.  The first identifies faculty behaviors that make it difficult for them to learn.  The second identifies what other students do that makes learning in the classroom difficult.  At the same time, the faculty member lists student behaviors that make his or her best instruction difficult to deliver. Lists are then compared and discussed. As Weimer points out, “An open, free-flowing discussion reinforces the importance of the issues raised and will likely be an eye-opening exercise for some. The beauty of the strategy is how it makes clear that what the class ends up being is the result of actions taken by the teacher and the students. What individuals do matters to the class as a whole, and the behaviors on the list are things students and the teacher can avoid doing.” 

Another way to address the problem is pointing out the negative results arising from multitasking. Would sharing information on research like the following with your students make a difference?

“. . . students who use their mobile phones during class lectures tend to write down less information, recall less information, and perform worse on a multiple-choice test than those students who abstain from using their mobile phones during class.”  Kuznekoff. J. H., & Titsworth, S. (2013). The impact of mobile phone usage on student learning. Communication Education, 62 (3), 233-252.
“…students who reported regular cell phone use in class showed an average negative grade difference of 0.36 ± 0.08 on a four-point scale. Duncan, D., Hoekstra, A., & Wilcox, B. (2012). Digital devices, distraction, and student performance: Does in-class cell phone use reduce learning? Astronomy Education Review, 11, 010108-1, 10.3847/AER2012011.

“…other students are distracted when students text in class.” Tindell, D. & Bohlander, R. (2011). The use and abuse of cell phones and text messaging in the classroom: A survey of college students. College Teaching, 60, 1-9.

 What do you think? An thoughts and  tips to share on how you establish a productive, distraction-free learning culture in the classroom?


  1. Interesting suggestions; but none addresses the (root) cause: (a) addiction to smart phones and (b) lack of interest in education or learning (just an interest in grades and socializing).

    Unless there is a disincentive, across the board i.e. in almost every class, for using smart phones (in certain ways) in class, most cell phone policies would be ineffective. So we have to agree on what to do and aggressively enforce it.

    Unfortunately, it is very difficult to monitor what students are doing on their smart phones to figure out whether it is aiding or enhancing learning (or not); so an effective policy would have to generalize and ban or allow certain kinds of smart phone activity. We need to decide what those activities will be.

    One such policy would be to ban all but note-taking (using smart phones in class) and indicate what the penalty would be (similar to our current attendance policy: "1. Four absences may result in an automatic failure in the course. 2. Three tardy arrivals may be counted as one absence." etc.). Further, in terms of penalty for consideration, students who violate the cell phone policy should not be entitled to (do) extra-credit (if any is available in that course or class).

    Safro Kwame

  2. Those are very good suggestions for policy implementation, Dr. Kwame. I, too, tend to view cell-phone use as a corollary to (b) lack of interest in education or learning. I see it as part of a "bundle" of behaviors that indicate little to no interest in learning that include: excessive absences; coming to class late and/or leaving class early; sleeping or other lack of attentiveness; talking to other students (or even talking on cell phones); and use of other electronic devices, including tablets and "web-surfing" on desktop computers in labs.

    The solution, however, is difficult. First, it calls for an excessive focus on enforcement, to the point where we must spend a lot of time policing our classrooms instead of focusing on presenting material and interacting with students. Second, it calls for sanctions that will affect grades, and that can have negative consequences for faculty members, especially those who are not tenured. Professors who enforce strict cell phone policies will be seen as "mean" and will receive lower student evaluations than those with laissez faire policies.

    I would be interested in any suggested solutions to this difficult problem.

    Ken Nagelberg

  3. I'm afraid Ken (Dr. Nagelberg) is right! He put it in a better (wider) context. Thanks!

    Safro Kwame

  4. Ken, yes, clearly described. And I share your struggle with finding a solution that doesn't lead to "excessive focus on enforcement and sanctions." I'm always more comfortable talking about what students will do in the classroom rather than lecturing on what they are not permitted to do. My feeling is that if I have structured the class time well students won't be tempted to check their phones all the time, although I know that's often wishful thinking given the lure of technology and the force of habit.