Cell Phones in the Classroom Drag Everyone Down

Michael Rousell, PhD
May 29 · 5 min read

A Solution

The jury is out: Unauthorized cell phone use in classrooms reduces engagement, attention to the lesson, and overall grades. And not just for the user. Students who don’t use their own devices but witness others using theirs inappropriately also suffer from these distractions. Students working in groups also report resentment toward those who use their devices instead of working with group members. That’s a bad start for effective collaboration and mutual respect.

Cell phones, or hand-held-devices, appear in every classroom. Teachers attempt a myriad of solutions to keep students off the screens and on the topic. Many solutions require extra vigilance by teachers, punitive measures, or resentment from the students. I take a different approach. Students praise my solution and I’ve garnered 95% voluntary participation over the last five years. Yes, voluntary, without extra vigilance, punishment, or resentment. Here’s how it works. You can easily adapt it to your classroom and level.

Students like to make informed decisions that benefit them. I explain the educational benefits first and then follow up with a plan for their personal payoffs. (See My “Educational Benefits” stump speech below if you want to review it.)

If grades invariably drop with inappropriate device use, eliminating them should recap that loss. Accordingly, I give students incentives for dropping off their phones when they enter the classroom.

All students want higher grades or productive paths to get them. I typically give students 20 assignments that vary in weight from 5–15 points with an average weight of ten. That means that students can earn up to 200 points, but 165 is all they need to earn an A. They can choose their paths to earn an A. My classroom motto is, “Whoever learns the most wins.” I give two categories of assignments: mandatory and optional. Everyone must complete the mandatory work (presentations, projects, tests) while students may choose from an assignment shopping list to select their optional work (additional readings, additional projects, additional presentations, or proposed alternatives). Here is where the rubber hits the road. Dropping off the cell phone at the beginning of each class earns a total of 10 points toward your final grade. (Not 10 points per class.) In other words, dropping off your phone means one less optional assignment. That’s pretty popular. Students can also use their 10 points to barter for late assignment forgiveness or assignment extensions. Depending on the level you teach, they might use these points for other classroom privileges such as early dismissal, library passes, or tardy forgiveness.

Additionally, the social-psychological principle of “social proof” kicks in. (People’s behavior is largely shaped by the behaviors of others around them, especially those with whom they strongly identify.) I give my stump speech during the early portion of the first class and ask them who would like to participate. Once a few students start moving toward the sign-up sheet, the other students typically rush to the table to drop off their phones. During end-of-term evaluations, students regularly comment about the freedom they feel from putting their phones away “I thought I’d miss my phone more.” “I found it liberating to be phone-free for a couple of hours.”

Caution 1: Make sure that your students can earn a grade of A without dropping off the phone. The program must be voluntary in order to avoid backlash. If you give privileges to students who drop off phones, make sure there are other paths to these same privileges. Just be sure that the phone-drop is the most appealing.

Caution 2: Be clear that the cell phone drop is essentially a commitment to stay off-line on any device during class time, unless it is required.

Caution 3: Keep the drop-off table near the entrance/exit. Students occasionally forget their phones if they don’t see them when leaving.

An outright ban is often unworkable because many teachers use online resources in lessons. When working online is required, devices are allowed. When they are not, put them back on the table.

My Education Benefits Stump Speech

“As the teacher, when I see a student on a phone, I get distracted and annoyed. It interferes with my concentration and also instinctively puts that student into the mental category of inconsiderate. It’s hard for me to write a positive reference for a student in that category.

When one student sees a fellow student on a device, the student observing the infraction gets distracted and annoyed. It interferes with that person’s focus and also instinctively puts the offending student into the mental category of inconsiderate. Labels like that interfere with subsequent social opportunities, willingness to group together for projects, and trust in general.

Even if a phone is in a pocket, it still interferes with attention. It’s called tweet-leak. As soon as a person feels the vibration, their attention instinctively goes to the phone: “Who’s calling? I wonder what that’s about? I wonder if it’s important.” Even when students don’t answer their phones, their attention still gets captured momentarily and they can’t remember what they were just doing in class — tweet-leak. This is akin to having coffee with a friend and a server drops the dishes. You instinctively turn to the sound. When you get back to your conversation, it’s always, “What were we talking about?”

Multi-tasking is a myth. Our brain is a serial processor. We can tie our laces and talk at the same time because tying them has become automated. We couldn’t tie them and talk when we were first learning to tie them, just like we can’t think while attending to our phones while we are learning. Turn them in and be a stronger learner.”

Laptops and Phones in Class Drag Down Everyone’s Grades


Original Study from Michigan State University

Ravizza, S. M., Hambrick, D. Z., & Fenn, K. M. (2014). Non-academic internet use in the classroom is negatively related to classroom learning regardless of intellectual ability. Computers & Education, 78, 109–114.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Michael Rousell, PhD

Written by

Psychologist, associate professor, and author of Sudden Influence: How Spontaneous Events Shape Our Lives. Studies instant belief formation.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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