Cell Phones in the Classroom: What’s Your Policy?

By Sydney Fulbright, PhD

Are we old fuddy-duddies when we ask (demand) students to put away their cell phones in the classroom or clinical areas? Students tell me this is just the way it is now, but I disagree. I teach courses in health sciences. Students practice in the hospitals, interacting with and caring for real patients. My colleagues and I have found students with their phones in their pockets, in their socks, and in their waist bands in order to have access to their precious smart phones but still hide them from instructors. We have found students sitting on stools texting while the hospital preceptors did the work. Some students are one phone call or text away from dismissal from the program before they stop using cell phones in classroom or clinical setting. What is the answer to this problem? Are faculty members being too demanding by placing cell phone restrictions in syllabi or clinical handbooks?

Research has indicated that student performance is significantly correlated with cell phone use. A study by Duncan, Hoekstra, and Wilcox (2012) demonstrated that students who reported regular cell phone use in class showed an average negative grade difference of 0.36 ± 0.08 on a four-point scale. Students also underestimated the number of times they accessed their phones while in class. While students reported an average access rate of three times per class period, observation data showed the rate was closer to seven times per period. An interesting finding is that other students are distracted when students text in class (Tindell and Bohlander, 2012). So while a student may claim he’s only hurting himself when texting, studies show that others are affected also.

So what is the answer to this new form of passing notes in class? Faculty must assess their own feelings about their students using cell phones in the classroom. This will include the type of class one is leading. In the hospital setting, using a cell phone when caring for patients is disrespectful and can be dangerous to the patient’s and the student’s health. Many times it is against hospital policy to have a cell phone in a patient care area. In a lecture setting, the cell phone vibrating or a student texting can be very distracting to those around the student, including the faculty. In the exam area, students can use their cell phones to cheat on tests. Other faculty may incorporate the use of the cell phone in the course planning. The ability to quickly access the web for discussion information can be beneficial for the students. It also can encourage participation when paired with software like Poll Everywhere.

Once the instructor has a clear understanding of the potential positive or negative impact of allowing cell phone use, he or she must clearly state policies in the syllabus. If the faculty member allows phone use, he or she then must clearly state how the cell phone can be used. If no cell phone use is allowed, this too must be clearly stated and students need to know the repercussions for violating the policy. For example, if my students use their cell phones during class, they must leave class for the rest of the day. If the violation occurs in the clinical area, they receive a formal warning. After the second warning, they are dismissed from the program.

Most universities do not have a campus-wide policy concerning cell phones in the classroom. Instead, it is left up to the individual faculty to make those policies and state them in the syllabus—which also means it’s up to students to keep track of which professors allow cell phone use and which ones don’t under any circumstances. Whatever your policy, you need to communicate your expectations clearly so there’s no doubt in the students’ minds. As a faculty friend wrote in his syllabus, “If I see you looking at your crotch and smiling, you are dismissed.”

Readers, what’s your cell phone policy? Please share in the comment box.

Duncan, D., Hoekstra, A., & Wilcox, B. (2012). Digital devices, distraction, and student Performance: does in-class cell phone use reduce learning? Astronomy Education Review, 11, 010108-1, 10.3847/AER2012011.

Tindell, D. & Bohlander, R. (2011). The use and abuse of cell phones and text messaging in the classroom: A survey of college students. College Teaching. 60. Pgs. 1-9.

Sydney Fulbright, PhD, MSN, RN, CNOR, is an associate professor in the College of Health Sciences at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith.

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One Response to Cell Phones in the Classroom: What’s Your Policy?

  1. Sabita ram says:

    Awesome post Mary!

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