Written by Stephanie Whalen, Chair, Academy for Teaching Excellence & Associate Professor, English and Interdisciplinary Studies

All faculty members teaching at the college level have undoubtedly had to face the issue of cell phone use in their classrooms. There are many philosophies as to how to deal with the distraction ranging from ignoring it to enforcing strict penalties. There are several YouTube videos about teachers resorting to smashing phones in order to make a statement about texting in class. Certainly, though, there are ways to reduce digital distractions without resorting to violence. Some faculty develop elaborate policies. Some give extensive pep talks. Some stand next to students until they put their phones away. Some faculty have even staged incidents with phones as props to get their point across. How do you handle cell phones in the classroom? If you are still developing your policies about mobile devices, here are some suggestions that may turn this problem into an opportunity for mentoring:

Increase Students’ Awareness of Time and Opportunity as Resources
Students are not always thinking about the investments they are making as college students; when reminded of the financial value of each class session, the time and energy stores that they expend to be in college, and the privilege of having an opportunity to get a college education, they start to think differently about allowing cell phones to consume their attention. Dr. Shanté Holley, English, is known for giving students her “Other Side of the Door” speech to remind them that they can play on their phones elsewhere, but that it is not something they can do in her classroom. If they want to enjoy social media or surf the Internet, they can surely stay home and do that on the sofa. If they are putting forth the time, energy, and financial resources to get to campus, they need to make good on their investment by being fully engaged in the learning opportunity. This little talk at the start of the semester, and whenever needed as a reminder, helps students to think about effective use of their resources and their purpose for being in college. Many of our students who don’t do well may be enrolled in college, but are not engaged in the work of being a college student that must take place inside and outside of the classroom. If students choose to be on the inside of the classroom door, they should conduct themselves in a manner that reflects that choice.

Coach Students on Professional Conduct and Decorum
College classrooms are also training grounds for professionals, and constant attention to one’s cell phone would not be appropriate in most fields. Law professor Patrick Gorman remarks that students need to learn standards of decorum such as putting phones away during class and paying attention to lecture or group work just the same as they would in court, in a deposition, or during a business meeting. After a student answered a phone during his class and left the room while talking, he realized that students don’t always know how to handle personal matters as a professional. Upon returning to class, the student commented that she is a mother first as a means of justifying the disruption. This made Professor Gorman realize that the student was unaware of how to handle a situation of needing to be responsive to her family members’ needs and maintain professionalism. Going forward, Professor Gorman plans to address professional decorum as part of the course curriculum by explaining to his classes that students must keep their phones on silent and put away as a general standard of professional conduct and to let the him know if they have a critical situation in progress and that they may have to leave their phone on vibrate and then exit the room briefly to take a call. Otherwise, the breaks he gives to the class every hour should be enough time to check their devices and handle non-emergency communications. Professor Gorman also explains to students that occasionally they will be asked to use their smart phones for class purposes such as looking something up, but that he will direct them to do so. Hopefully, keeping phones put away in academic and professional settings will become a habit. After all, we don’t want professional behavior to deteriorate because we are not teaching students standards of professional conduct in class.

Put Some Teeth into It
Even though mentoring students about their cell phone habits may work for some, there still may be a need to have a back-up plan. Many faculty put information about digital distractions in their syllabi and reserve the right to deduct points from participation grades if students are distracting themselves or others with cell phones. A Diverse Faculty Fellow at Harper, Bilal Hussain, Sociology, currently deducts 20 points from students when he sees them using a phone at inappropriate times in class. He says that is effective as a forceful reminder, but that some students still end up using them a few weeks later. Some students respond better to explanations of the reasons why they should keep their phones put away, others may be more concerned when course credit is on the line, and for some it may take both. It may be that a combination of coaching with the potential of a consequence is prudent. Most faculty who have a cell phone policy that includes a penalty of losing credit have a safeguard that is there if they need it, but seldom necessary. Like other aspects of classroom management, faculty members have to develop an approach that fits their personality, teaching style, and the dynamic of each classroom; what worked well for one class may not be effective with another.

What Students Say about Cell Phones in Class
Most students will admit that they are often distracted by their own cell phone use as well as the use of electronics by others, but assert that they cannot maintain focus in a long lecture or without interaction. Many students find it easier to stay engaged when they have opportunities to work in partners and small groups so that they can connect with others in the class, but switching up activities in any way can be helpful to break the monotony and reset the clock on students’ short attention spans. Students also appreciate regular breaks so that they can check their communications, and it helps if a professor provides a clear description of the expectations for electronic devices in the classroom. If professors are uncomfortable with their use of cell phones, they want to know about it but prefer that the instructor address the class first and then talk to students individually if they still aren’t getting it. Sometimes they don’t realize that they are distracting others, including their professors, by using their cell phones. If you tell them what you expect and provide advice on how to negotiate their personal lives with their professional lives, they will learn from your coaching, and we can all be less distracted in the classroom and in the outside world as a result.

Further discussion and resources regarding cell phones in the classroom: