Teaching Today

Why I Take Students' Cellphones

Kevin Brown gives three reasons he decided to make it a policy in his classroom.

January 28, 2020
 
 
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Let me begin this essay by making two points quite clear. First, I am not suggesting that any other professors follow my practice of taking students’ cellphones in class. Second, and related to that, professors have a wide variety of reasons to want students to have their cellphones.

Some believe that students should learn to self-regulate (or even sink or swim, depending on one’s perspective), often reminding them that “this isn’t high school.” Others find that students can and do use cellphones in productive ways in their courses -- whether by looking up information and resources on the spot or through live Twitter feeds, to name a few.

That said, something changed in my classes and me that has led me to take away students’ cellphones. For years, I did what many professors do: I made vague warnings about cellphones, explaining to students that their distraction would cause them to do worse in the course than if they were more focused. At times, I became so bothered that I would call students out during class, though I would usually try to say something to them away from most students, often when they were in groups doing work. But one event caused me to finally adjust my approach completely.

I was teaching a first-year writing course during the spring semester, a time when our weaker students usually enroll. Students were making presentations on their second papers, so I was sitting in the back of the room where I could observe their delivery. I noticed one student, sitting near the front of the classroom, react quite vividly, even making a slight noise, during one of the presentations. It wasn’t a point in the presentation where he should have been surprised or had any other reaction, so I was puzzled, but I couldn’t see what might have caused the problem.

After the presentations, I moved to the front of the room to talk about the students’ next paper, and he reacted again. This time, I saw that he was looking at his phone. It was March, and the madness was in full swing. I took his phone from him until the end of class.

In thinking about where to go from there, I knew I could simply take students’ phones any time they caused some sort of disruption like that. But for several reasons, I went further and decided to have students turn in their phones at the beginning of every class.

In practical terms, what I have is a poster board at the front of the classroom with their names on it. The students leave their phones in the spot with their name when they come in; thus, I can quickly check attendance using the board. From time to time, a student will forget to drop off their phone, and I simply remind them without any type of guilt-inducing comment, and everything is fine.

Three Reasons

I take students’ phones for three main reasons, and they all stem from that one incident -- which is simply a magnified version of many smaller occasions from the past decade or so. First, the students who most suffer from being distracted by their phones are the ones who can least afford to be distracted. The student I mentioned was struggling in the class, and he, more than most of the students, needed to understand the final paper assignment, as it would make the difference between passing or failing. In fact, he did end up failing the course, not because he didn’t have the ability to pass it, but because he didn’t do what he needed to do. He actually missed passing by just a couple of points. He also dropped out of college after that semester, even though the class he took with me was the only one he failed.

At our institution, we have a number of students who, often through no fault of their own, are not as well prepared for college as we might hope -- whether that’s because they came from poor educational backgrounds or because they’re first-generation students struggling to learn simply how to be in college. They are the students whom I see most often on their phones. Thus, just as a coach works to change players’ behavior when they continually make the same mistake, sometimes simply by making them run every time they make it, I want my students to have the best chance to succeed -- even if I take what some people would consider more extreme measures to make that happen.

Here is where many people would say I’m not letting students learn how to self-regulate (or that I should let students learn the hard way -- “it’s not high school” again). That makes sense to me on a certain level, but one student’s behavior in class doesn’t affect that person alone. The second reason I take all students’ phones is because one student on a phone often distracts the group of students around that phone. Whether the student with a phone is reacting rather loudly, as the one in my class did, or simply interacting quietly with the phone, other students watch to see what is happening. They try to peek as the student is playing a game, texting or watching a movie, causing them to miss important material or instructions. To use the coaching metaphor again, if a coach saw a player disrupting the team in negative ways, that coach would do whatever was needed to protect the rest of the team, whether benching the player or, again, making that player run until the behavior changed.

The third reason is that stopping to call out students on their phones or taking the phones on an individual basis simply disrupts the overall flow of the classroom. If I had said something to that student on his phone during the other students’ presentations, the only way I could have stopped that behavior would have been to interrupt whoever was presenting. Given how anxious students already are about such an assignment, my interruption would simply exacerbate their anxiety. Similarly, if we were in the middle of a productive class discussion, stopping to call out one student on a phone would break the flow of that class period. It also turns me into an antagonist, somebody they’re working to outsmart rather than somebody who is honestly working with them to help them learn.

I’ve been taking students’ phones for more than a year now, and I’ve had almost no student pushback. Three students have written comments on my course evaluations, and all three were positive, saying that it helped them or the classroom atmosphere. This year, a student from a colleague’s class interviewed me for her final paper, as she was arguing for a campuswide ban on cellphones in classes (an approach I don’t support, as professors should get to establish their own classroom environments). One student in a first-year writing class did ask if I was allowed to take the phones, and I assured him I was. He never raised the issue again.

This year, I’ve added smartwatches to the devices they’ll need to leave on the poster board, and that approach has helped remove a few minor distractions I noticed last year. I haven’t banned laptops yet, given that some students do require them. But I strongly discourage students from using them -- mainly because my classes are not ones where students need to be taking large quantities of notes, if any.

I wish I didn’t need to have such a policy on phones, but I’m also not willing to let students actively harm their chances for success, as well as distract other students, when I can so easily stop that from happening. So far, my experiment has worked well, and I’ll continue this policy until I find a better way to help our students -- especially those who struggle the most -- have the best chance at success.

Bio

Kevin Brown is a professor of English at Lee University.

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