June 16th, 2009

Students Agree Cell Phones in Class Are Distracting


In case you ever had any doubts, research (reference below) now exists that verifies that both students and teachers find cell phones ringing in class distracting. The results also document strong support from students and faculty for policies against ringing cell phones. Although there was strong support against cell phones going off in class, the strength of that support was mediated by age. The younger cohort in the study was more tolerant of cell phones than the older cohort.

The problem, of course, is that regardless of the classroom management technique you try, it is virtually impossible to prevent cell phones from ringing in class. They ring despite strongly worded statements in the syllabus, regular announcements in class, and threats of various sorts. Well, they don’t actually ring, they beep out jingles, tunes, and other electronic sounds.

Ringing phones in college classrooms are distracting, and faculty, probably because we didn’t grow up using cell phones, seem particularly annoyed when they do go off in class. If you want to generate discussion in the faculty mailroom, ask several folks standing there what they do about the problem. For many, there’s something of a power issue involved here. Despite policies against cell phones in the syllabus, or announcements by the teacher that they must be turned off, right in the middle of an important point, one goes off. Every one hears the phone and watches as someone (who is usually quite embarrassed) retrieves and silences it.

So what should a faculty member do when the inevitable occurs? Confiscate the phone? Accost the offender? Wail and carry on about how students show no respect? The problem with these loud and powerful responses is that most of the time they don’t prevent the problem from recurring.


It seems more prudent not to make a mountain out of a molehill. That doesn’t mean molehills have to be tolerated. Their offensiveness should indeed be pointed out. But when the distraction occurs, perhaps there is silence and then an attempt to regroup. “Now, where were we?” “What’s the last thing you wrote in your notes?” “Do you understand what I was trying to explain?” The disruption becomes an opportunity to review and connect with what students are (or are not) understanding. This prevents the disruption from doing even more harm when it not only distracts but results in an unpleasant exchange that threatens the climate for learning.

Editor’s Note: On Thursday, we’ll highlight one professor’s creative response to cell phones ringing in class.

Reference: Campbell, S. (2006). Perceptions of mobile phones in college classrooms: Ringing, cheating, and classroom policies. Communication Education, 55 (3), 280-294.

Excerpted from Cell Phones Do Distract in Class, The Teaching Professor, March 2007.

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8 comments on “Students Agree Cell Phones in Class Are Distracting

  1. I make it clear, if the phone goes off, the student is asked to leave the classroom. Doesn't take that many occurrences to cure the problem.

  2. I'm in pre-university education and I've only heard a cellphone go off in class approximately five times. FIVE TIMES. Over a period of FIVE YEARS! I would not exactly call that an awful lot of ringing phones.

  3. To tell the truth, im a teacher at saguaro high and my students that have cell phones are always on it! i want to be the cool teacher and not take it away, how would it be a nice way to take it away? if you know … please please reply !!!!!!!! thanks

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