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The quandary of students texting in class

A study finds they do it – a lot – but believe that professors don’t notice.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | March 30, 2012

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.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau has been the deputy editor of University Affairs since 2003. He started the Margin Notes blog in 2009 and it has gone on to win several awards, including Best Blog at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.
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  1. SP / March 12, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    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.

  2. Jane Gold / January 2, 2013 at 11:42 am

    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.

  3. C. Kingsfield / April 14, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    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.

  4. Anna Pearce / April 10, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    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.

  5. Leo Charbonneau / April 10, 2012 at 10:49 am

    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:

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