Banning Smartphones and Laptops in Classrooms

Much has been said lately about whether or not to ban all mobile devices (e.g. smartphones, tablets, laptops) from the classroom and require students to use the more traditional pen and paper to take notes during class time. The basic logic of this class management approach is that students will become easily distracted by their devices and will do things on them that do not relate to what is happening in the class. That FOMO (fear of missing out) leads to too much addictive interactions with these devices, or that simple boredom with a class causes wandering fingers to flick across social media accounts or shopping or, uhm, other pursuits.

Research has been circulating for a couple years now on how students benefit from the traditional pen-and-paper approach to note-taking, leading to the advocating of banning laptops from classrooms, despite students’ claims on how typing notes helps them. Various professors (even famous ones) have been experimenting with this approach to education — a turn back the clock approach — for years. A study at West Point seems to indicate that students would benefit, academically, from not having such devices at their beck-and-call.

I have been teaching in the United States since the fall of 2003. During my time at Ohio State University, there were not a lot of laptops brought into the classroom for the purpose of note-taking. I left teaching in the fall of 2008 and spent a couple years in Denmark just doing research. When I came back to teaching in 2011, there were more laptops in the classroom — but more than laptops, everyone it seemed had their smartphone on the desk alongside any notebook or laptop they had brought for class. These mobile devices were not there for aiding the student in the classroom, but because the student seemingly couldn’t have the device anywhere but within hands reach.

For awhile, because I am a “tech” person, I let students bring whatever devices they wanted to to class and use them during class. My reasoning was that if they were going to distract themselves, then that was on them. If they didn’t want to pay attention to what we were doing in class, then it was going to show up in their work for the class. And for the most point it did.

But then I got annoyed. At not being paid attention to because students were texting people outside of class. Or shopping. Or working on assignments for classes other than the one they were sitting in. I had made it my class policy that if they were doing something on a device not relate to course work, then I had to right to announce it to the class when I was walking around. I had hoped shame would deter them from using their devices in these ways. But it didn’t. And I got even more annoyed.

I understand the idea that they are adults and they are paying for this education, and if they don’t feel that paying attention is worth their time, effort or money, then that was their choice. But it also felt immensely disrespectful to me, someone who was putting time, effort and money into providing the education for them. And I think we are having a lot of problems with respectful communication practices these days. So last semester — when I commented on a student using his phone in class and he snapped back at me — well, that was the last straw.

This semester, I developed a new policy. This one:

Mobile Devices
No mobile devices are allowed to be on the desk, in your lap, or in your hands in class unless with my permission, which will be given if requested or for certain activities. Research shows students succeed better when taking notes the old fashioned way (for example, see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop (Links to an external site.)). If you need a notebook, then please see me, as I have extras and am willing to give you one for this class.

If I see a device out and open without my permission, then I will take it and give it back to you at the end of the class period. Phones must be silenced. If I hear a ringtone or if your phone buzzes incessantly, I will take it and give it back to you at the end of the class period.

If I see you engaging in an online activity not related to our course work that is distracting you and/or those around you from class work, then I reserve the right to be as interested in your extracurricular activities as you are, and to inform the rest of the class about them as well.

I banned all devices, even laptops, in my classes this semester — and handed out notebooks to people who didn’t have them. I was following the research and the recommendations from fellow professors. I bought into the traditional approach, that changing how they took notes in class would help them pay more attention, learn more, and do better in class.

For the first couple weeks, at the beginning of classes, I reminded the students to put away all of their devices. After that, when someone left something out, I would quietly tell them to put it away. They could use their own devices during in-class activities that required them to go online or digitally produce something. But other than that, devices had to be out of sight and not heard. Out of sight, out of mind; less distraction, more attention; better students.

Only I don’t think it really helped the students. I have small classes. I teach the same students in different classes because I basically just teach classes for our majors. I know these students. I know how they did in previous classes. And those who I know that did not do well in previous courses did not do well in these courses.

It wasn’t because they didn’t know the content we went over in class; they were diligent in taking notes, trying to copy word for word my PowerPoints, despite their being available online before class. Maybe they were too focused on copying my PowerPoints and not listening to me. Maybe I need to do better to remind them that the PowerPoints can be copied outside of class, but what they need to do in class is listen to me. Maybe that is a benefit of the laptop: seeing the PowerPoint and just adding notes to it.

Because where I was seeing problems with their work outside of class. First, they were not paying attention to the details in the assignment descriptions posted online, and second, they were not applying the course content to their work. 

Not paying attention to the details could relate to the tendency I saw in classroom to just copy the PowerPoints and not pay attention to the details of what I was saying. My PowerPoints have a lot of information on them, but they do not have all the information. So if you are only focusing on one thing, then you may be missing other things. And I think that happens when they are looking at my assignment descriptions. They are looking at the big picture of what they have to do but not following the nuances to make certain they do everything.

The not apply the course content — well, part of that goes to not paying attention to the assignment description that details such as a requirement. But it was also a problem I saw even when they were allowed to have mobile devices in the classroom. So I don’t think the devices make a difference in that one way or another. I think humans being humans, sometimes things just do not work out the way we want them to.

While I agree that these devices are distractions, I think students will find ways to be distracted otherwise. Daydreaming existed long before devices externalized the process. When I was an undergrad, I drew temporary tattoos on my hands when I got really bored.

But I was also a dedicated student, so I also paid really close attention in the classes that meant a lot to me. And most did. I paid attention in the classroom and outside of the classroom. But I was motivated to do so. I think devices give people an outlet when they are not motivated, and the addictive nature of devices make them harder to not put down.

I probably will keep my ban in place because I really hate it when I can see them doing work for another class while in mine. But I didn’t see an impact on course acumen and higher grades with the ban.

I think the ban helps them stay focused during class time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will do better in the course overall. If they do not remain focused outside of the classroom to complete their work according to the details of the assignment, then having them be more focused during the class doesn’t matter.

And I can only do so much. I know I can — and I will — present my assignment descriptions so that the details are easier to see and follow. I will stress the ability to copy PowerPoints before class. I will repeat ad nauseum that at the core of my classes is the application of course content. But I — and all us teachers — need to remember that we can only do so much. As my colleague once said: you can lead a horse to water, you can stick the horse’s muzzle in the water, you can even pry open the horse’s lips while it is in the water — but you will never make an unmotivated horse drink that water.

So how do we increase this motivation? So that it wouldn’t matter if they were using mobile devices or pen-and-paper to take their notes?

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