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Margin Notes

The quandary of students texting in class

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


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 is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Cary / March 31, 2012 at 12:54

    The best technique I’ve heard of the lecturer telling students that cell phone were banned from her classroom. However she also offered to incorporate some of the students suggestions into the classroom rules.

  2. newprof / April 1, 2012 at 10:08

    I find it amusing that students who text in class think the professor doesn’t notice. I can see students texting under their desks or behind notebooks, and I know they think they’re hiding it. However, I’ve also noticed that students who text in class have grades that are 10% – 20% lower than those who pay attention and are intellectually present. Students who text miss huge swaths of information about essays, exams, etc., and are the type who email me the day before an essay is due saying, “I’m lost.” Really? Tough.

  3. Andrew Park / April 2, 2012 at 16:28

    I issue a handout at the beginning of each course, with a few simple rules detailing my duties and responsibilities, and those of the students.

    Among these is an outright prohibition on any electronic communication device.

    I do, however, permit students to use laptops. I can not guarantee that the laptop users always obey my injunctions, but the rules seem to work for the most part.

    As for the texterati – they are usually painfully obvious, and reminders occasionally have to be given…………

  4. Adam Crymble / April 4, 2012 at 04:14

    If it’s a seminar you could always ask the student for their opinion on the discussion while they are texting. Otherwise, you might need to accept the fact they just aren’t that interested.

  5. jeremy / April 5, 2012 at 10:15

    i think students should be texting in class. If they are texting that is a clear indication that your lecture is failing. Banning the texting is equivalent to banning a symptom, before lecturers could just ignore the symptom, assuming that the scribbling on paper was note taking and not merely doodling and boredom, now they are confronted with the symptom and it is very real and they want new ways of ignoring it and preventing it. No… fix the disease, the lecture, not the symptom, the texting.

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