September 11th, 2017

Helping Students Make the Right Call on Cell Phones


Student smiling and showing friend smartphone in lecture hall

Much has been written, both in Faculty Focus and elsewhere, about cell phones in the classroom. Such pieces typically break into two categories: whether to ban or not to ban, and techniques for using devices productively for educational purposes.

As helpful as those discussions are, conspicuously absent most of the time are students’ views. Do they even want their phones available in class, or are the devices simply attractive nuisances? Is a classroom without cell phones desirable from their standpoint—and if so, what would it take to achieve such an environment? Last spring, I decided to find out.

In full disclosure, I’d been in the “ban them at all times” camp for many years, and I had stringent policies and enforcement to that effect. Past experiences did little to mollify my stance. On the contrary, a 2015 article by Berry and Westfall confirmed what I’d long suspected: private classroom cell phone use has a negative learning impact not only on the person employing it, but on those distracted by the user as well. Measurements showed this was true, even if students felt they were not affected by others’ use. The authors found that students saw direct confrontation and concrete repercussions as the key deterrents to cell phone violations, concluding that “faculty should consider adopting more assertive or punitive policies if they are serious about curtailing phone use in the classroom” (68).

Yet, even having anticipated and enacted such policies, students’ furtive texting, emailing, and surfing remained an endemic, if minor problem in my classrooms.

Fortunately, a colleague alerted me to an interesting article that turned the usual cell phone policy approach on its head. What if, instead of punishing students for bad behavior, we rewarded them for good conduct? This reversal undergirded the study by Katz and Lambert, who offered extra credit to those willing to surrender their cell phones at the start of each class. Their results looked encouraging and the protocol was simple, so I decided to give it a try.

My protocol, which was very similar to that of Katz and Lambert, ran as follows. Sheets of blank paper were laid out on a table at the front of the classroom. Students had the option—again, none of this was mandatory—of writing their names on the paper and placing their deactivated phones over their names. Devices would be in full view of everyone and easily retrieved at the end of each session. In exchange, students would receive token extra credit for each surrender date.

I enacted the procedure not knowing what would happen. Most worrisome was, what if no one took me up on my offer? To my surprise, nearly everyone in two different classes sprang to their feet and surrendered their phones the first day, even before I informed them how much extra credit was at stake.

Yes, there’s the ethical dilemma of offering an incentive for expected, normative behavior. Isn’t this simply a bribe for common decency? But I controlled the amount of extra credit, and it wasn’t much—just a fraction of a point for each day. In the end, a student could raise his overall course grade by just two percent, assuming that he attended every meeting and surrendered his device each day. And for those who chose not to give up their phones? The in-class ban still applied, with penalties being enforced, as necessary.

But enforcement and punishment ceased to be an issue. In one course (N = 19), students voluntarily surrendered their phones with 87.7% frequency, a number that was driven down mostly by two individuals who opted never to participate. In the second class (N = 20), the participation rate was a whopping 98.5%. If removing a source of distraction from the learning space was a main goal, this method had succeeded beyond by my expectations.

End-of-semester surveys of the protocol were likewise revealing. For example, consistent with Berry and Westfall’s findings, most of my students were convinced that cell phones were not distractors. Yet, despite that view, about half of each class admitted that giving up their devices had a positive effect on their own learning (some were unsure, and a small minority disagreed with that proposition). Even less ambiguous were students’ assessments of the impact on classroom environment: combined, 69.2% detected a positive effect, while no one saw a downside (the remainder were ambivalent). The only discernable gripe concerned the small amount of extra credit awarded: predictably, students thought they should receive more points. But as seen in the statistics above, this seems to have had little impact on actual participation rates. A token incentive will do.

So maybe it’s not about monitoring and penalties, not about harsh syllabus policies and calling students out. Positive behavior modification is attainable at minimal cost, and classes appreciate the better learning environment. The implications for such aspects as attendance and participation are likewise intriguing. And if you’re wondering whether you should give this a try, let me offer one last statistic. When asked if they wanted their other professors to enact a similar phone surrender policy, 79.5% of my students responded in the affirmative.

After all this time and debate, who would’ve thought that students actually wanted to give up their cell phones all along?

Berry, Michael and Aubrey Westfall (2015). “Dial D for Distraction: The Making and Breaking of Cell Phone Policies in the College Classroom.” College Teaching, 63: 62-71.

Katz, Louise and Warren Lambert (2016). “A Happy and Engaged Class Without Cell Phones? It’s Easier Than You Think.” Teaching of Psychology, 43/4: 340-345.

Pete Burkholder is a professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He also serves on the Teaching Professor Conference advisory board.

  • James Rund

    Since cell phones are a part of everyday life, I recommend a
    specific policy which mirrors the standards of the profession. When a
    nurse is managing a floor of patients, that nurse must understand protocol and
    know how to manage their cell phone. The students can practice this same
    expectation in their training program.

    On a philosophical level, while the practice described as
    rewarding students for basic expectations of professionalism may have immediate
    positive results, I believe in the long run it may also enable or reinforce an
    attitude of entitlement. What happens when the student, now employee,
    leaves their phone off or in the car while on duty? Will there will be
    some expectation of an award or recognition?

    So we start giving extra ‘academic’ credit for students who turn in
    their phones. Are we setting a precedence for those who have other
    electronic devices like smart watches, music players, thumb drives with games,
    etc.? And what do we do with the student who has no opportunity for
    ‘extra credit’ since they do not own a cell phone? Should we build in
    rewards for not bringing coffee and food into the classroom? Or, should
    we reward our students for finding a babysitter for their children? I
    know this sounds absurd, but where do we draw the line? I guess I’m
    from the old school in that we must find our own internal reasons why to meet
    expectations to achieve our personal goals. We must make a decision on
    our own to meet the requirements of our profession. Otherwise, when we
    get dependent on an external reward for a certain behavior then what happens
    when that incentive no longer exists? I would imagine once the external
    incentive is removed there would be no motivation to continue that behavior
    since none have been developed internally.

    • Laura Shulman

      some good points, James. I actually encourage students to USE their mobile devices to search the web for answers to questions that arise in the classroom that are not easily answered or may have different interpretations. But I also figure if a student is busy on their phone and not paying attention, they will lose out in the long run. I can look around and see when students are not paying attention. That eats into their “effort & participation” grade. I also try to incorporate active learning in the classroom so students do not become so bored as to turn to their phones.

  • goodsensecynic

    I have a simple rule: “equality of access.”

    The day I obtain a cell-phone and bring it to class is the day that others may do the same.

    Since I drive a 25-year-old GMC pickup truck, possess no CD (much less Blu-Ray or other device), iPhone, iPad, Netflix subscription, access to “apps” (whatever they are), tweets, texts and the like, I have earned the right and am at liberty to teach students about learning and living without reliance upon/addiction to tiny keyboards and inane 140-character messages.

    One result is that (some) of my students become actively engaged in the printed page. They slowly and admittedly painfully overcome Attention Deficit Disorder and Post-literacy Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some even acquire the capacity to speak in whole paragraphs and to discover that a 3,000-word essay is within their ability to complete – often with minimal grammatical errors and some degree of internal logic.

    I know I’m a dinosaur, a quixotic romantic and an aspirant Luddite. I don’t have the courage or the integrity to follow the noble admirers of the mythical General Ned Ludd and his very real “Army of Redressers” all the way to the gallows – after all, I am too compromised by my use of the Internet and my ownership of a microwave over (used only to re-heat last night’s coffee). I do, however, try to retain some of the bits and shards of communicative decorum that exist in any colleges and universities worthy of the name.

    I know the times are against me and (unlike Fidel) have no faith that “history will absolve me.” Still, I will go to my grave with the solace offered by English theologian Richard Hooker (“On the Ecclesiastical Polity,” 1598) who explained his support for lost causes thus (roughly from a fading memory): “I speak as I do, if for naught else than this, that posterity may know we did not, loosely through silence, let things slip away as in a dream.”

    NB: I am cautiously optimistic that there will actually be a “posterity.” Whether they will know enough to care is a matter about which I am less sanguine.

  • Russ G.

    All good points, but I make my classroom cell phone policy more student-centered and student-driven. I offer the following policy as a potential class policy for a democratic vote. An “up vote” means it’s our new course policy and a “down vote” means I get to be the bad guy (fun!!) when the occasion arises. **Proposed policy: anyone observed using their phone or whose phone makes audible noises or vibrations is deemed a “distraction to learning” and owes the entire class a set of treats of some sort (food, healthy or otherwise, etc.) within a week’s time. It’s amazing how many students vote for such a policy because they think it won’t be them, and oh the euphoria when there is a phone distraction. Amazing how self-regulating all of my classes have become…

    • James Rund

      Yes. I’ve used this for Navy leadership classes. It works well and adds a little fun. Thanks for bring it up.

    • Helen Vayntrub

      Has anyone ever not paid the penalty or ignored the class policy?