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The quandary of students texting in class

Posted on 30 March 2012 by

No cellphones allowed

There has been much discussion about the “distraction” of students using laptops in the classroom (University Affairs has a least a couple of articles on the topic, here and here). But, interestingly, I’ve seen relatively less discussion on the use of the equally ubiquitous cellphone in the classroom setting. I was therefore intrigued by a recent survey by two psychology professors at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania on the “use and abuse” of cellphones by students, published in the journal College Teaching. A good summary of the research can be found in March 2012 issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter, which I’ve cribbed from for this post.

The professors, Deborah Tindell and Robert Bohlander, surveyed 269 university students – from first year to fourth year – in 36 different courses. The students answered 26 questions about their use of cellphones as well as their observations regarding the cellphone use of their peers.

Nearly all students (99 percent) reported having a cellphone and 95 percent reported that they brought their phones to class every day; 92 percent admitted that they had sent or received a text message during class and 30 percent reported that they sent and received messages in class every day. As well, 97 percent said they had seen texting being done by other students in the classroom. I doubt many professors would be surprised by these findings.

Interestingly, the students felt that their instructors did not know they were texting – almost half “indicated that it is easy to text in class without the instructor being aware.” Of greater interest, 10 percent of students said they had sent or received a text message during an exam, with nine percent saying it was easy to do so. However, suspiciously, 33 percent of students chose not to answer this question. The authors write, “Failure to answer could be seen as a reflection of the respondents’ desire to either not risk self-incrimination, or to not reveal to faculty that texting during an exam is a possibility.”

When asked about cellphone policies that they might suggest, the students had little to offer beyond being allowed to use them so long as they don’t disturb others. According to The Teaching Professor summary, faculty policies described in the article include confiscating any phones that are being used for texting; or if a student is observed texting, some professors count that student as absent for the day.

Professors, what would you do in a similar situation? Do you tolerate cellphone use in class?

The article by Drs. Tindell and Bohlander includes references to several studies documenting how texting interferes with and compromises learning.


12 Responses to “The quandary of students texting in class”

  1. Cary says:

    The best technique I’ve heard of the lecturer telling students that cell phone were banned from her classroom. However she also offered to incorporate some of the students suggestions into the classroom rules.

  2. newprof says:

    I find it amusing that students who text in class think the professor doesn’t notice. I can see students texting under their desks or behind notebooks, and I know they think they’re hiding it. However, I’ve also noticed that students who text in class have grades that are 10% – 20% lower than those who pay attention and are intellectually present. Students who text miss huge swaths of information about essays, exams, etc., and are the type who email me the day before an essay is due saying, “I’m lost.” Really? Tough.

  3. Andrew Park says:

    I issue a handout at the beginning of each course, with a few simple rules detailing my duties and responsibilities, and those of the students.

    Among these is an outright prohibition on any electronic communication device.

    I do, however, permit students to use laptops. I can not guarantee that the laptop users always obey my injunctions, but the rules seem to work for the most part.

    As for the texterati – they are usually painfully obvious, and reminders occasionally have to be given…………

  4. Adam Crymble says:

    If it’s a seminar you could always ask the student for their opinion on the discussion while they are texting. Otherwise, you might need to accept the fact they just aren’t that interested.

  5. jeremy says:

    i think students should be texting in class. If they are texting that is a clear indication that your lecture is failing. Banning the texting is equivalent to banning a symptom, before lecturers could just ignore the symptom, assuming that the scribbling on paper was note taking and not merely doodling and boredom, now they are confronted with the symptom and it is very real and they want new ways of ignoring it and preventing it. No… fix the disease, the lecture, not the symptom, the texting.

  6. Herbert Pimlott says:

    First of all, you show students the first 18 minutes or so of the PBS documentary, “Digital Nation”, which shows there is no such thing as “multi-tasking”: multi-taskers turn out to be worse at each task they do. But, when I am teaching, I can tell by their body language, facial expressions, and eyes what they are doing on their laptops in class. I sometimes give a longer pause in my lecture or talk and watch how they respond or ask them a question. If you notice, they usually take an extra second or two to break away from what they are reading or typing before they can even begin to absorb what you are asking them. Most students in my class have taken a course on “Non-Verbal Communication”, and yet do not understand how I can tell what they are doing by observing their “non-verbal” communication. I have even noticed students in a seminar messaging back-and-forth to each other. I used to crack down on it, but if they are not disturbing anyone (besides the two of them), I don’t let it distract me from my lecture or talk. However, as I have warned them about it affecting their grade, I just make a note of it for the class and deduct their participation grades accordingly.

  7. C. Kingsfield says:

    Read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. Digital technology is literally changing our brains, and probably not for the better. The other day a student texted in class — as I spoke with her. She first answered a question (she was attentive enough for that), but then held up her phone in front of her face and texted as I addressed her response. Is “rude” even the word here? It’s almost psychotic in the literal sense of the term. We were interacting as a dyad in a room full of people at a public event! Many students exhibit signs of addiction, which is why devices need to be banned — they simply can’t stop themselves from playing. They’ll say everything is fine, but their actions tell a different story. Even laptops are usually employed for non-course purposes. I now routinely have students who are physically present for a whole class session blank out and not know what’s going on from one minute to the next. To me (an oldster), they appear stupid or brain-damaged (though I’m very sure they don’t see their own actions in this way). And what about the matter of (what used to be common) politeness for the presenter? When I see half the class zoned out of their minds on digital devices, I have to wonder why I’m even in the room trying to help them learn anything. There’s only so much I can do to compete for their attention (not that I should have to). The most basic mode of normal/traditional in-person interaction is now broken.

  8. Here’s an interesting update to my blog post: according to CTV news, the University of Ottawa “is considering a proposal which would give its professors the power to ban laptops and other electronic devices in the classroom. Professors say everything from texting to time on Facebook is allowing their students to do everything but learn.”
    Link here:

  9. Anna Pearce says:

    I think banning laptops outright is a terrible idea. As much as some students are using them as a distraction, other students are using them as learning tools – including students with disabilities. Banning laptops except for students with disabilities just outs students with disabilities to their classmates.

    I don’t ban laptops in the classroom, but I do tell students I’ll expect them to use them for the class if we want to check a quick fact or find out if something’s available in the library.

    As for texting… If they’re not bothering anyone but me, I’ll cope. The problem I have is determining if they’re bothering anyone else.

  10. C. Kingsfield says:

    I would always exempt students with disabilities. And no one needs to know the issue — someone might simply have carpal tunnel etc. and stand in need of a computer. No one needs to know why (not even me).

    However, I need to be clear: I view the problem as so serious that a ban might be appropriate even given that the few allowed to use computers would be “outed.” At this point, I feel I’m held hostage much of the time by a population that often displays no respect whatsoever for good behavioural standards. Those who use devices only for taking notes are in the minority (and probably a rather small minority, from what I can tell).

    Unlike Anna, I have a big problem with device use distracting me. I need to focus on the material and offer well-articulated expositions and arguments. I can’t when so many students essentially thumb their noses at me as I address them in person. I have a job to do. I also have self-respect. What sort of a person allows others to ignore and run roughshod over one’s basic right to speak and be heard? It’s a matter of respect.

  11. Jane Gold says:

    In my undergraduate English classes (and in my graduate classes, but my grad students don’t text in class) on the very first day I announce strict rules about not texting in class. I don’t allow laptops or cellphones: these must be put in a bag under the desk. I make it clear where I am lenient (I don’t take off for late papers) and where I am strict: a full grade down on the *final grade* for each time a student texts. Because it’s primarily B- and C or D students who text, they know my policy means that they will probably fail the course if they text — and I keep a close eye on students in the back row, students on the sides, and students whose hands are not visible. Since I have started making my policy very clear on the first day of class, I have had no problems. When the class begins, I say, ‘Put your electronic equipment away,’ and they do. I’m speaking here about classes of 33 students; I know them all by name, and I make eye contact w. all of them during class. And yes, this system works, and yes, we have excellent discussions and close readings of literature. I learned the hard way several years ago that I had to do this, and this method has been successful. I intend to keep doing it.

  12. SP says:

    I agree with Jane Gold.

    I teach in a science department, upper level freshman courses that are very quantitative (i.e., math). I use the same policy, essentially. The first time I observe a student using a phone (too bad, doesn’t matter for what), I warn them. The second time I deduct a full letter grade from the maximum they can earn. Thus, at the beginning of the semester, everyone has the potential to receive the much-desired A. If caught twice, a student can only get B (despite the performance otherwise) in the course. Caught a third time, the student receives a C as a maximum grade. This is pretty much stopped this nonsense (perhaps at the end of the semester I may see the failing students try to push the boundary, but they are failing anyway). It is a matter of respect and professionalism, about the student’s self-respect as well I would say. Since behaving in such a manner detracts from the perceived character of the student. Anti-texting policy should be adopted and implemented strictly.

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