April 24th, 2013

Tough Questions on Texting in the Classroom


It’s time we started exploring some of the tough questions on texting. The May issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter contains highlights from a survey of almost 300 marketing majors about their texting in class. The results confirm what I’m guessing many of us already suspect. A whopping 98% of the students reported that they had texted some time during the term in which the data was collected. They did so for an unimpressive set of reasons, the most popular being “I just wanted to communicate.” Fifty-six percent of the cohort said they were currently taking a class in which the teacher banned texting. Forty-nine percent said they texted anyway.

As I note in The Teaching Professor, this article is a great resource. It contains references to other studies documenting the use of texting and cell phones in college classes, and it features an excellent discussion of the physiological reasons why the human brain is not good at multitasking, despite the fact 47% of the students in this survey believe they can text and follow a lecture at the same time.

However, the real value of this research is that the findings and the authors raise tough questions about texting. Does it make sense to ban texting if students ignore the ban and teachers back away from enforcing it? Can a ban be enforced? How about in a large course, can it be enforced then? Should it be enforced? The researchers note that at one time most faculty objected when students brought food and drink into class and now that’s accepted in many classrooms. What are the costs of enforcing a “no texting” policy? Public altercations with students that erode the climate for learning in the classroom? But texting itself erodes the learning atmosphere of classroom, doesn’t it?

What about taking the “if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them” approach? The researchers cite a number of references in which faculty describe ways and means of using texting to enhance the learning experience. I worry that texting for legitimate reasons serves to validate its use for any reason.

Does texting show a lack of respect? Perhaps, but are students doing it because they want to disrespect the teacher? Or are they texting simply because they do it everywhere else and don’t see the classroom as being any different. I regularly see faculty texting during my workshops. Am I being disrespected?

Here’s a student comment (cited in the article) that raises the toughest question of all: “For me, I only text when I am bored, so if the teacher sees that maybe they can change their teaching style.” (p. 36) The researchers write, “Given the research on multitasking and brain function, the real question is not whether texting in class lowers academic performance, but why does a class not produce enough cognitive load that texting would disrupt it?” (p. 36) In other words, why isn’t the content in our courses interesting and challenging enough that students realize if they text, they will miss something important?

No, I’m not naïve—too old for that. I know that a divine visitation could be occurring in class and some students would still be texting. Moreover, not everything we teach, not even the stuff that that students really need to know, titillates with excitement. Sometimes we have to pay attention when it’s boring. And most of the time our attention cannot be divided for learning to occur. Somehow students must confront the fact that they can’t be texting, listening to the teacher, and taking good notes. They’re going to do one well and the others poorly, just like the rest of us when we try to multitask. Late last year I tried to listen to a webinar on Medicare while cleaning my desk and writing notes for a blog post. I later had to spend hours trying to rectify the mistakes I made when I signed up for Medicare.

The questions about texting are tough because they don’t have easy answers. I don’t think there’s one simple policy that solves the problem and constructively resolves the issues. But I don’t think that excuses us from confronting the questions.

Reference: Clayson, D. E. and Haley, D. A. (2013). An introduction to multitasking and texting: Prevalence and impact on grades and GPA in marketing. Journal of Marketing Education, 35 (1), 26-40.

  • T Day

    Here is the beautiful and appropriate upshot of the generation who believes their "right to text" overrides everything else: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57580739/a.j-…. The upside to this story is that cell-phone boy got fired. The downside is that our retarded media is so facinated with fools that he's going to be a guest on a variety of jabbering moron shows as a result.

    The television was imagined to be an educational tool before it was introduced to the public. That was a bust and now television is nothing more than it's "idiot box" nickname. Cell phones are a rude, disrespectful, useless, mentally-retarding toy that has no more business in a classroom than a handfull of firecrackers. If "educators" continue dumbing down content to suit the distracted minds of the worst of today's youth, the result will be an education system that continues to be the laughing stock of the industrialized world. Some part of becoming educated requires disipline. Children like AJ Clemente are devoid of disipline and were cheated in their education by lazy and cowardly teachers.

    • Janice Volland

      The use of the perjorative terms "retarded" and "moron" detract from the relavance of your argument.

      • guest

        Indeed! and from your credibility.

  • Yousi Mazpule

    This is so true! I teach freshmen and sophomores the art of writing an academic essay. The rule is that they step out to answer an important text. The operative word here being important. To an 18 or 19 yr old "what are you doing after class?" is an important text to answer. So I've cut it down to no texting at all. I've actually forced my students to, in front of me, turn off their cell phones and place them in their backpacks. Does no good. They step out to text. How do you stop this? You can't. You can try to regulate it, you can try to monitor it, but you can't stop it. This generation was born with a cell phone under their diapers. You cannot fight that!

  • linda amos

    In my experience using the cell phone in class is not only for traditional students. The adult learners are also doing this. I keep asking them: "What did you do before you had a cell phone?" they say nothing and stare at me like a "deer in the headlights". I work hard to prepare for class, give it my all, and expect them to do the same. I stopped getting frustrated, it will not happen for the majority. It does not matter to them. If I give a group assignment that has to be completed in class, then they like it. They do not touch their cell phones as much and they become more engaged. There is no rule that works, I decided to let it go. Their grades will show them how well they listened. When they start asking for extra credit at the end of the semester I ask them to text me and I will think about it.

  • Cathy

    Can someone please send me a survey on texting in class that was used. I would like to conduct the same survey at my school and see the results. I rarely have students text in my class because I teach practical subjects.

  • Lenny

    This is not a tough question at all. It is clearly a bad idea for students to text in class.

  • Joe Clark

    If texting is ok, how about a small TV, X-box or playstation ?

    • Marlene

      I teach high school and once caught a student watching a tv show on his IPod during class!

  • Doc Mac

    Yes, texting in class is disrespectful, but probably not done with the intention of being so — the offender is simply self-centered or unaware of the implicit rudeness to the instructor.

    However, I have adopted the view that students who disengage themselves from class are engaged in self-limiting behavior: just as drinking too much makes one have a hangover (or worse), repeated inattentiveness that is not distracting to another has its own punishment. Indeed, students who do this repeatedly are exhibiting symptoms of being disconnected from the whole point of the educational process — the texting itself is just the outward sign of a deeper lack of engagement. Sad.

    The reason I let nature take its course is that I used to observe teachers waste their energy and class time (as well as that of all in class) by attempting to enforce rules about controlling non-interrupting behaviors. I am plenty engaged with the students who care enough to engage. Please don't tell me that I am responsible for someone else's bad choice to be un-involved in their own education — a service for which they have already paid!

    • linda amos

      You echo my sentiments. They have a choice and commitment and engagement with the learning process is the key. Like motivation, we cannot make them do anything they are not already interested in doing. We can try to inspire them and that works for a few but not the whole classroom. I noticed how much time I spent trying to stop the behavior and that means that I was taking time away from those who do not do this. By the way, the students who pay for their education out of their own pocket do not disconnect…the difference is there, in the commitment levels and the maturity levels.

  • Mitra Emad

    I have a realization as I read your wonderful blog entry today, Maryellen: yesterday as I was working with small groups on their semester projects, a student texted right in front of me. I was only vaguely aware of it until I read your post today. I think I didn't notice it, because she was also completely involved in our conversation and after she put her phone down made a couple of significant contributions to the group's game plan. I also think that raising teenagers over the last few years has had an impact on my ability to trust and notice when they are still "with me" and when they are totally gone into the world texting opens up. For the most part, my own teens and the students in my classes exhibit respect while texting by using body language, eye contact, and vocalizations that indicate they are still "with" what is going on around them. I think as the nature of cyborg life in our society changes, we can also refine our own attunements to interpersonal exchanges. Thanks for helping me have this insight!

    • James

      I respect those who can multitask effectively; according to research, only a small population can.

      I had one student who was distracted by his phone and ended up not knowing most of the requirements I covered in class.

  • Joe Clark

    Do we teach students how to be responsible or irresponsible ?

    If texting in class is "ok", what are students learning about
    professional and work obligations they should anticipate
    in their careers ?

    Even if they adjust when they become professionals that
    have to unlearn irresponsible and disrepectful
    behavior they have learned in college.

    Maybe academia should have high standards
    rather than low standards.

    • James


      In a meeting with a prospective multi-million dollar client, if you lose this client by texting under the meeting table, your boss won't forgive you.

      That habit of resisting paying attention to the phone has to be taught and addressed before students enter the workforce.

  • Joe

    Two options that haven't been mentioned yet:

    1. Buy a cell signal and/or wifi jammer to block the signal, or find a room on campus that doesn't get a cell signal (we have several, mainly below grade).

    2. Engage the students and have them use the devices they are bringing to class anyway as pedagogical tools. We use Learning Catalytics and peer instruction in my classes to varying degrees in an attempt to keep them focused and engaged. I'm not naive enough to think that all texting and inappropriate use of electronic devices has disappeared but from what I see and the TAs in the back of the room tell me it's less than other courses.

    • James

      The first option may involve liability ramifications in the event of an emergency.

      • Joe

        if there are in room phones, many if not most institutions have a reverse 911 system set up to ring them in case of an emergency. And to me, this prospect is much more saddening than students texting in the classroom.

  • Robb

    This is the second article I've read about this topic. I agree that students should not be on their phone. However, the wrold is a much different place now. We need to stop saying, "when I was a student". When I was a student we also didn't have computers. So should we make everything be hand written or typed out so that we feel the students today don't have it easier? No, we shouldn't. We need to adapt. We need to make the boring material that we all know we have better. Less boring, more interactive. If we can't do this, what hope do they have? You think that just because you have taken their phone away they are no longer bored and paying attention? If you do, then you are fooling yourself. I was a unfocused student. I didn't have a cell phone. I would find things to stare at and ponder them instead of listening. It's not the phone.

  • Guest43

    If I can provide a different perspective, I work in a district with multiple campuses and most faculty have to attend frequent district specific and campus specific meetings, lectures, and presentations related to pedagogy, accreditation, updated state standards, etc. In those meetings a significant percentage of faculty members of all years of experience and background spend their time on their smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc. I even had one colleague who would bring their coding work for their dissertation. My question is, if we do it on the job, why is that ok, and aren't we being a bit hypocritical? I know I've texted my spouse in meetings on number occasions about things I think are important that others would find trivial. Stopping at the store, picking up our kid from daycare, etc.

  • 45Doc70

    Part 1: Interesting comments — I've a bit of a different perspective on texting: it's not acceptable to text just "anywhere else". Physican's offices, dentist's offices, court rooms, hospitals ban texting/cell calls, particularly in the exam room. Imagine a dental hygienist [sic?] root planing/hand scaling a tooth and your cell vibrates and you jump — or, here it comes guys! — you're having your prostate digitally palpated and your cell vibrates and you jump. Both sound ridiculous — they are very real possibilities. In court rooms, people are being found in contempt of court for texting during trial cases — recently a juror was found in contempt of court for texting during the trial! Hence, there are social ramifications outside of academics regarding texting — a colleague puts in his syllabus "If I see you look at your [groin] and smile, your grade is dropped one letter grade each time."

  • 45Doc70

    Part 2: I also agree that we faculty set the standard — and that's a tough one. I do have and enforce a no-texting policy in the classroom, except in case of a life or death emergency and I spell those out (babysitting is NOT an emergency for academics!). That said, in this day and age of heightened security, my cell stays on vibrate so I may receive texts about active shooters, etc, on campus — I simply do NOT want 25-75 cell phones (or that many people talking, panic-stricken) going off all at once to notify the shooter where we are — I'm kinda funny about that! That said, my cell is off during meetings — and it irritates me to no end that other faculty AND administrators have theirs on.

    I do come from a day when we had no cell phones, no internet and long distance was expensive. And received several emergency notifications from both staff on campus and local LEO's. I have no issue enforcing no-texting to drive academic success for my students. I remember what I did before cell phones LOL

  • 45Doc70

    Part 3: A succinct portion of my background in brief: in my lifetime I've been a LEO, a soldier and am a doctorally degreed physical scientist (my curriculum is pre-health care centered). I get rules, I get enforcement and I get logic 🙂 I also want my students to be the very best they can possibly be … without ANY distractions, including, but not limited to, no texting and no internet during the time they are in class or lab — and lab is a whole other story for safety reasons!

    Oh, yeah: I lecture from the middle of the room in quasi-darkness walking from front to back watching for signs of "deer headlight eyes", in part because I'm very serious about my students having no distractions in class from class material and so that I can catch confusion quickly … in part, as well, so I can see if their screens light up.

    Sidebar: the "deer headlight eyes" also gives me an opportunity to flip the class right then and there and snap the students back into academic reality and focus 🙂 Interesting article … lots of passion on this topic.

  • Hernan

    I believe that texting is bad for several reasons. The student is not being respectful while he is texting to his buddy. Other students see this type of behavior and they want to do the same thing. Students should not be allowed to do whatever they want. If they do what they want, the classroom can become a circus. I am a little flexible. Students can text at the end of the period.

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  • James

    If a college student thinks he or she has the right to have his or her electronic device out in the classroom, does that person dare to hold it during a sport team practice or, worst yet, a military training session? Obviously NOT unless he or she wants to be dismissed by the coach or military instructor.

    If professors are not expected to act like coaches or military instructors, who should take the responsibility to teach our young generation about focus, discipline, emotional self-management, and manner/respect? Can professors count on their parents or K-12 teachers? If parents and K-12 teachers did teach that, apparently it didn't work as a majority of students in this study couldn't resist using their phones.

    On a side note, I was alarmed to observe that recently a few high school students didn't say hello, didn't identify themselves, and didn't say bye in a phone conversation I had with them. Welcome to the texting era in which each message (written or spoken) has to be within 160 characters long.

  • James

    Part 2:
    I want to add a few other thoughts to my previous message. In addition to the negative consequences enforced by the coach or military trainer, an athlete or military trainee won't touch their phones also because they are intrinsically motivated to stay on a sport team or to be in the military.

    Many students who go to college are only motivated by extrinsic factors like a degree or better job. I wonder how many students still value the true meaning of learning in college these days. Many who text for non-emergency reasons may not even want to be the classroom. Professors can remind students to put away their phones and show how human brains can give 100% attention to multiple tasks at once, but after all, we can't force them to learn if they don't want to.

    • James

      Typo: how human brains can't give 100% attention to multiple tasks at once

  • James B

    I make it clear to my students that the one thing they own that will prevent them from learning more than anything else is their mobile phone. Their phone interrupts their attention and usually demands a response – who in their right mind can concentrate with such interruptions?
    At the beginning of each class I ask for phones to be turned off, placed in their bag and the bag on the floor. I explain that if the bags aren't on the floor often students will ignore the first request and hide behind the bag texting. Phones in the bag prevents a phone on silent still demanding attention when it vibrates in a pocket.
    No excuses – phones exposed in class get confiscated.

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  • Karl

    Someone probably already mentioned this, but I have neither the patience nor the level of tolerance to peruse the large volume of comments here, so I’ll just say my piece.

    If you want students to stop texting in class, require them to bring their cell phones and require them to use them to text as part of the class. Doesn’t matter what you require them to do with their cell phones; anything will work.

    After a couple class periods using their cell phones in class, you’ll be surprised how many students will tell you they forgot their cell phones at home, or lost their cell phones, or left them in their cars, or have a dead battery, or had a dog eat their cell phones, or had their cell phones stolen in a mugging.

    • Anna

      What a great idea! Do you think that will work with High School age students? What are some examples that you have used?

  • Anna

    This is a very difficult issue to deal with. I find that students who use their cell phones constantly in class are using them even when they have an in class assignment or a skill lab. My most recent experience is my CPR class. Students are still obsessed with using their cell phones (taking pictures, texting between skill set practices). It isn't just that they are bored. There is a culture of young people who want constant engagement 24/7 and don't know how to sit and listen. As a healthcare professional proficient listening skills are very important and students do need to develop those skills. Classes should be a blend of all teaching methods. Maybe the students who are bored would be better served with online courses for some of their classes.

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  • Dr. Larry Rosen

    Here are two studies that we have done reflecting on the impact of texting during classroom lectures and while studying:

    Rosen, L.D., Carrier, L.M., & Cheever, N.A. (2013). Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 948-958. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563212003305)

    Rosen, L.D., Lim, A.F., Carrier, L.M., & Cheever, N.A. (2011). An Empirical Examination of the Educational Impact of Text Message-Induced Task Switching in the Classroom: Educational Implications and Strategies to Enhance Learning, Psicologia Educativa, 17(2), 163-177. (http://my.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/40095/anempiricalexaminationoftheeducationalimpactoftextmessage-inducedtaskswitchingintheclassroom-educati.pdf)

  • Erik Lexintin

    Hi there,

    I am a marketing manager for ClassMode. We have just released a free beta version to the public. The application will notify teachers if there students use their smartphones during class. More information can be found here at theclassmode.com!