June 18th, 2009

A Classroom Cell Phone Policy that Builds Community


The first time a student’s cell phone rang in my class, I was angry and frustrated. With their musical ringers, cell phones that go off in class are rude and distracting. But how to respond? I’ve never been very good at playing the heavy. Was there any way I could take this annoying occurrence and twist so that it would contribute to a more positive classroom environment?

I’ve devised a “cell phone protocol” that has enabled me to make peace with the problem. As it appears in the syllabus, the protocol reads: “Please turn off your cell phone ringer while in class. Mind you, violation of this protocol will demand punishment—though one that clearly does not infringe on your eighth amendment rights.” I then ask someone to identify the eighth amendment, and as a history professor, I’m happy to report that someone can always explain the constitutional limits on cruel and unusual punishment.

I advise students to turn off their ringers in class, and I note that if someone’s phone rings, he or she will have to provide the class with food. It doesn’t have to be an extravagant meal (remember the eighth amendment!), but there must be enough for everyone. In the beginning, I offered the possibility of a subsidy to economically unable students. However, I abandoned it once I realized that if students could afford a cell-phone package, they could provide treats to about 30 classmates.

The community-building process develops in earnest when a phone actually rings in class. During an episode that otherwise involves an unpleasant exchange, there is now occasion for celebration, as students cheer at the prospect of their upcoming snack. The cell phone protocol, much like a kangaroo court in baseball, which exacts minor fines for small indiscretions, helps to build an esprit de corps and I push this outcome even further. When it is difficult to discern whether the cell phone rang or was in vibration mode, I encourage the students to vote as to whether or not a violation has occurred.

So what are the drawbacks of this policy? There are few. The biggest is that even with my policy, cell phones still ring in class and they are just as rude and distracting. I see no way around this problem. In my class, students are distracted, but we grow closer as a result of it. The other potential problem is that an instructor might not want food in the classroom. Fair enough, just have the punishment be something like telling a joke or sharing a poem.
The policy also has produced some wonderful surprises that make me proud of my students. Once a student decided to skip the standard fare of candy and brought in dried fruit. Although most of her peers (and her teacher) were disappointed with the healthy alternative, this student took the opportunity to encourage people to eat a more healthy diet. And at the end of this past semester, one of my quietest students informed the class that she was disappointed in a classmate who still hadn’t brought in food for his transgression. The chastened student, who apparently had extra money on his meal card, brought in a buffet for his dumbfounded classmates.

Ultimately, though, the greatest advantage of the cell phone protocol occurs when someone’s phone rings in class and the other students start hooting joyously. It doesn’t make the phone ringing less distracting; but on the other hand, how often do you hear students cheering in the classroom?

Dr. Alan Bloom is an associate professor of history at Valparaiso University.

Excerpted from Making Cell Phones in the Class a Community Builder, The Teaching Professor, March 2007.

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8 comments on “A Classroom Cell Phone Policy that Builds Community

  1. I love it!! I was trying to come up with a creative way to handle this issue. Now have have one. As a new university instructor, I'm learning so much from all you seasoned instructors!! Thanks so much!!

  2. It seems this policy is full of holes. Phone use continues, “punishment” causes more distraction than the phone (30 students eating instead of one receiving a call), and the community service is too vague (violator could recite a 4 line poem for each violation). I use a simpler solution that works. When a phone rings, tell the student to turn it off. If it rings again, confiscate the phone for the remainder of class time.

    Also, what of the students who have phones on silent and continue to use them for games and texting all during class? In the days of yore, students were chided for even day-dreaming. Nowadays it seems the lesson is like the T.V. — pay attention only if you wish.

  3. I just tell my students the first day of class to shut off their cell phones and no "texting." Any phones ringing during class will result in the owner of the phone losing one point off their next quiz/test grade. Just to show that I don't play favorites, if my cell phone rings during class (It's only happened once!) I award all students with an additional point on their next quiz/test. The policy works pretty well. I've only had to deduct points a few times.

  4. As a future teacher, what are the best strategies should I impose when there cellphone addict students in the classroom?

  5. What about following a good learner-centered approach and involving the students themselves in establishing a class policy for cell phones? Show the results of research on the impact of multi-tasking on learning, and then bring the students into the discussion. Instead of considering students as children who need a policy imposed from authority, treat them as adults and ask them to reflect on the issue. Moreover, when authority is shared and students contribute to set the guidelines for class, they feel a sense of ownership: this typically produces more responsible behavior.

    There is another issue. Although I appreciate the warmth of the climate created by Dr. Bloom, cell phone ringing is not the only or main problem. The main problem is quiet texting, instant messaging, and surfing the internet for content unrelated to class. When this happens, learning is impaired. Instead, use active learning in which students do tasks during class, which may or may not involve technology, according to ground-rules decided by instructor and students together. I have reviewed the SoTL research on this issue and the results suggest that: (1) mobile technology is mainly a liability in traditional lecture-based classes; (2) mobile technology can be a powerful asset in active-learning / learner-centered classes.

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