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TL;DR

In the coming semester, I will be teaching a "seminar" type course with around 30 students. I would like to disallow students in the course to use any electronic devices (smartphones, tablets and laptops)?

Questions:

  • Is banning electronic devices in my course a good idea?
  • How do I enforce such a rule?

Background

In the coming semester, I will be teaching a "seminar" type course. The course is fairly small, with fewer than 30 students. We will spend most of the time in the course listening to students presenting their ideas, and the students critiquing and giving feedback on other students' presentations.

I have had a few years of experience teaching large lecture courses with more than 100 students per lecture. In these courses, many of the students prefer to type their notes on my Powerpoint slides, rather than writing on a physical copy of the lecture notes. Unfortunately, as I walk around the classroom, I invariably notice that a significant proportion of the students are distracted during the class by their electronic devices, e.g., checking their Facebook, Instagram or playing games. (I would estimate about 20% of students are distracted at any given point of time.)

I have noticed that I work better without electronic devices because I am less distracted and can focus better. Consequently, I would hope to minimize the distractions faced by students by disallowing students in the course to use any electronic devices.

Why do I want to ban electronic devices from the course?

The main goal of the course is to teach students how to analyze and present business case studies. The course is not one that is heavy on facts or memorization. Instead, students need to use their powers of observation to follow along presentations by their fellow students, and to evaluate their presentation style, body language and slide design.

Consequently, for this type of course, I do not see that electronic devices add any value. In fact, there are many research studies which suggest that electronic devices negatively affect students' learning. For example, an article in Psychology Today writes the following:

Cognitive capacity and overall brain power are significantly reduced when your smartphone is within glancing distance—even if it’s turned off and face down—according to a recent study. This new report from the University of Texas at Austin, “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity” was published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

During this study, the UT Austin researchers found that someone’s ability to hold and process data significantly improved if his or her smartphone was in another room while taking a test to gauge attentional control and cognitive processes. Participants who kept their phones in a pocket or bag also outperformed those who kept their phones on the desk while taking the same test. Again, even if the phone was turned off and face down on the desk, the mere sight of one's own smartphone seemed to induce “brain drain” by depleting finite cognitive resources.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Jan 4 '18 at 18:19

14 Answers 14

75

(I'm a student)

Why do you want to ban the laptops?
Just because some students get distracted? If this is the only reason, that is almost a question of philosophy: Should you force the students into a situation that you think is best for them or should you assume them to be mature enough to decide what's best for them? If your students were around the age of 12 years old, I'd agree that you should ban the laptops. But I'm assuming that your students have to be somewhat self-disciplied anyways to study for the courses in their 'free-time'.

I like writing my notes on the laptop. If you or the content of your course requires the students to take notes, please allow electronic devices. If the course is entirely focused on participation and taking notes would actually be useless, it might actually make sense to forbid using the devices because then the students would probably participate more.

In a class with only ~30 students, the following does not apply, but regarding your observation that some students are playing games during your lectures:
You will never be able to give the lecture in a tempo that fits every of the 100+ students perfectly. Some may be constantly bored and it suffices for them to listen with one ear while they are gaming or working on something else. Some are perfectly happy with your speed but get bored once somebody who was a bit slower asks a question.
In my experience, when I try to listen to a (to me) boring lecture, my thoughts just drift after a few minutes and I have not much to take away from the lecture. If I instead find a balance so that I can listen to you while it's interesting and keep myself awake and active by doing something else while it's not, I get more out of it.

Is banning electronic devices in my course a good idea?

In general a big no from me, because students don't like to be told how they should behave. Why would you need to enforce something like that when they are here because they want to learn. However, I encourage you to mention your observations to them and that you think the electronic devices might be detrimental to their learning, so they can make an educated choice.

In your case however, with only 30 students where you expect them to actively participate instead of just listen and understand, it can make sense.
But if only one student is presenting and the rest are supposed to sit and listen (opposed to interactively asking questions and discussing) then I feel like it's a similar situation to my usual lectures.

I have noticed that I work better without electronic devices because I am less distracted and can focus better.

True. On the other hand, I can learn better with electronic devices because it is easy to look something up that I didn't understand without having to interrupt the lecture to ask a question. It's also imo better for note-taking because you can paste parts of the slides and freely rearrange them.

How do I enforce such a rule?

First of all, please provide a good reason to the students along with the statement that it is forbidden. Otherwise you will get a few of them on the wrong side and they will still try to use the devices. Without cooperation, enforcing this would be very hard I imagine.

Secondly, give them a good reason not to get distracted. If they are required to be present anyways, it might be an idea to give out grades for participation. Or ensure that the content of the lecture is really interesting.

Think also about when you want to make exceptions. What if somebody has special needs, e.g. does not see the screen from afar? What if some student has an important deadline incoming and wants to work on that during your class, but still came to not miss completely everything? Etc.

Alternative Solution:

Some of the best instructors I had knew at which point of their lecture they should ask questions and took the time to learn students names. Then you can first ask the questions to people goofing off, and follow up with someone paying attention.

This is a quote of DBB's answer, and it reminded me of a tutor we had who everybody considered to be really great. The thing that set him apart is that he noticed when somebody was getting bored, distracted or lost, and asked that person a question. It might be a really simple one just to get their focus back, or it might be one that tests whether they are bored because they already know the content or rather because they're getting tired. Often, when one student would not know the answer, a different student would know the answer (and could explain it to everybody who lost track) or nobody else knew it either and the tutor knew what he had to explain again.
Such questions make people who are zoning out focus again, even if they are not the ones who were asked. And if it is fine to say "I don't know", nobody is afraid of being asked either, so they can answer honestly and give the tutor information about what they got and what not.

  • 28
    This answer captures a lot of key points on why banning electronic devices is a bad idea. Most presenters can not come even close to a pace that keeps your attention. If they do - then you can start to focus entirely on the presentation. If not - then what does the OP want here by removing the ability to stay engaged on something? Snoring? – javadba Jan 1 '18 at 19:14
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    There's a lot of research that says students learn less when taking notes on a laptop, even though they don't think so. – jaia Jan 2 '18 at 2:02
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    In my experience "12 years old" misses the cut-off age by at least 2 decades. (In my opinion, at least 6 decades.) Even advanced graduate students need some protection from themselves. Every professor knows several grad students who 1. will teach extra sections whenever there's an extra buck to be made (and I don't blame them a bit. I was one myself; married with two kiddos.) or 2. Take a job teaching at a community college thinking they can finish their dissertation while earning a decent-ish salary. And grad students are just as bad at texting during lecture as any middle schoolers. – B. Goddard Jan 2 '18 at 2:33
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    Still one point remains. A student sitting at my lecture should be there to listen to me. No one is forced to. No one is obliged to feel interested . But respectful of my work. To make my lecture more interesting is obviously my task. This is another point. I would have better sit at the cafeteria, if checking fb would have been a must. – Alchimista Jan 2 '18 at 12:04
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    @Alchimista I don't really agree with that point. Yes, it can be considered disrespectful (and that's a valid point to which I don't really know how to respond). It's convenient to sit in a lecture and listen only when I think it's useful to listen though. I claim it's better than sitting in the cafeteria during the lecture (unless I'm studying the lecture content myself while there), and even if I were completely not paying attention, I at least get to know which topics the prof is more enthusiastic about and which are less important. You're right though that this is a selfish perspective. – lucidbrot Jan 2 '18 at 12:13
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Be aware that some students with alternate needs may be prescribed electronic devices as a teaching/learning aid. Depending on your legal jurisdiction their needs may also be confidential and you may not be notified, but to ban them would create legal or ethical problems for you or the institution.

I cite, for example, the recording of the class for those with handwriting difficulties or vision impairment and so on.

It is a mistake to stereotype students' use of devices in class as always something suspicious as the population is wider than that.

  • 12
    A policy under which "electronic devices are banned unless required to accommodate a disability" may be permissible in such situations. However, this would have the effect of involuntarily "outing" such students as having these disabilities, when they might not otherwise want to share this information publicly. – Michael Seifert Jan 1 '18 at 21:29
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    This is fairly ridiculous: The special needs for a few -- which should by all means be respected -- should not inform general rules. I assume dogs and vehicles are generally forbidden in the classes -- but certainly not for the blind or the lame. "Alternate needs" (actually, additional needs, a.k.a. disabilities) which require special aids cannot be kept secret anyway, so no privacy issue there. Nobody would mind the one blind student recording. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jan 2 '18 at 5:11
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    @PeterA.Schneider not all disabilities are immediately visible. For example I am dsygraphic and can't write my notes (however i can type them). Not being outed as a person with a disability is something that is beneficial. People do have prejudices against the disabled and there are people who will mind the one blind person recording. – Q the Platypus Jan 2 '18 at 6:28
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    @PeterA.Schneider The fact that some disabilities can't be concealed is not an argument for requiring people with invisible disabilities to out themselves. – Geoffrey Brent Jan 2 '18 at 6:47
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    It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the student is entitled to special conditions and the faculty member is not notified about the accommodations allowed. (Otherwise, you set up a catch-22 situation.) Moreover, in many jurisdictions, the student must ask the instructor to be allowed to use the accommodations; they need not be automatically provided. – aeismail Jan 2 '18 at 17:49
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When it came time to make this decision for myself I examined why I might want to establish such a ban and came to the conclusion that I had two plausible reasons:

  1. To prevent one student's electronics from distracting other students
  2. Because research (up to that point) showed that the available options for computerized note-taking (or substitutes for it) led to less learning.

And this being for college I concluded that (2) wasn't my business beyond warning students of the effect, but (1) was a legitimate concern.

The text that went into my syllabus was

You are expected to refrain from disrupting the class or interfering with your peers' ability to pay attention. That means among other things no texting, no calling, no IMing, no emailing, and no social networking. During group-work and interactive teaching it may be appropriate to use internet resources to obtain facts and figures.

You may use a computing device to take notes, so I'm not banning them from the classroom, but it is your responsibility to insure that they do not become a distraction. At a minimum this means turning off all audible feedback. If you are using a device with an upright screen (rather than a pad) you should sit in a back row so that the activity on your screen does not present a visual distraction to your neighbors.

I've had no complaints either from students who thought the policy was too restrictive or from students who were being distracted and those few students who have used laptops have been happy to move to the back.

I don't know how I would handle the situation where a student with visual trouble that required them to be up front wanted to use a laptop. That's a hard case.

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    Just let them and trust them to be responsible. It's not note-taking that's distracting; it's the other stuff people do. – jaia Jan 2 '18 at 2:40
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    Mostly they are. I had a who was student playing Pokémon Go in classes several times this last semester. I don't intervene unless other students are being distracted. – dmckee Jan 2 '18 at 2:48
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    @jaia The trouble with distractors is that one distractor easily spoils the experience of 10 or more well-behaving individuals. In an ideal world, trust would be enough, since there would be no distractors in the first place. In the real world, especially in a group of junior students, you have to deal with distractors. – lighthouse keeper Jan 2 '18 at 15:31
  • @jaia, note-taking is distracting itself: scientificamerican.com/article/… – Andrea Lazzarotto Jan 3 '18 at 14:37
  • How about giving them chocolate and trying to discuss about the lesson in-class. I mean I had my most learning and nice lecture as a student on teachers that encouraging me to ask and partice in lesson by awarding me with chocolate (seriously). The key it to interact with students and not with just blah blah blah... Keep in mind that learning process is a bidirectional one. – Dimitrios Desyllas Jan 4 '18 at 14:40
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Banning devices is generally poorly received, everyone likes to think they know best about their own study habits. (For some of those 20%, they will be right, for others, you will be right.)

In a mandatory seminar I had to attend where it was very evident that no one wanted to be there (including the presenters), what the organizers eventually settled on was requiring all students to hand in half a page with summary and comments at the end of each talk. This forces note-taking in the immediate and generally makes the students too busy to look at their devices much even if they have them open.

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I am normally in favor of letting students make their own decisions, but the evidence against laptops in the classroom is so strong by now that I decided to ban them in my classes (which are mostly lecture). However, there are three exceptions: disability, very bad handwriting, and the possibility of giving me a write-up about why it's a bad idea to take notes on a laptop. The last one both allows students to make an informed choice if they really love their laptops and, more importantly, provides plausible deniability to those with disabilities that they don't want to publicly disclose. (So far, no one has used any of these options.) I explain the reason for this policy in my syllabus and provide links to popular science articles explaining the research. So far, I have taught two classes with this policy and experienced no pushback and no need for enforcement. If there was, "Please put that away" should do the job.

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As a professor teaching a class, and - by extension - a former student, I'll give a few reasons why I will never ban electronics/laptops in my class, even if they're classes that don't need them (banning laptops in a class about computational public health is a tall order).

Potentially Singling Out Students with Disabilities: There are students who use laptops as assistive devices. Even with a "ban", you'll likely have to make an accommodation for these students. Which means in the class anyone who does have a laptop will be assumed to have a disability. I'm not interested in making life harder for my students who are already struggling.

Being Able to Bring Laptops to Class Changed my Life: I'm not actually exaggerating with this. For my entire life, I have not been able to stay awake in lectures. Ever. Doesn't matter how interesting the subject is. What fixed that? Being able to take a laptop to class.

Which is more distracting and disrespectful - me occasionally doing something on a screen that's not laser focused on you, or me asleep in the back? Which will result in me missing more content?

They're Adults: They can make their own decisions about how they approach their class work.

I have noticed that I work better without electronic devices because I am less distracted and can focus better. Consequently, I would hope to minimize the distractions faced by students by disallowing students in the course to use any electronic devices.

What works better for you is not what works better for everyone. For example, I retain information better if I don't take notes at all. But I'm not going to ban note taking.

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    As an undergrad in the 1980s, I didn't get enough sleep, and frequently fell asleep during classes. For the two quarters I was a grad student, I got more sleep and didn't fall asleep in class - but was frequently bored, and did crossword puzzles and the like. For me at least, lectures consisted of about 5-10 minutes of info, and about 35-40 minutes of rehashing that info. The rehashing part was my problem; once you grasp 2 + 2 = 4, 20 minutes of rearranging apples or books or something to demonstrate it isn't necessary. – RDFozz Jan 4 '18 at 16:46
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Enough good research has been done at this point (see two sources below) that show that student learning is compromised by use of computers in the classroom.

• the act of taking notes by hand allows the brain to process and organize information in ways that do not happen when notes are taken on a computer;

• possession of a computer by students (without special needs) in the classroom invariably results in the user multitasking (email, eBay, Instagram, shopping) which takes attention away from the content of the lecture; and

• even the presence of computers in use within the field of vision of students not using computers reduces the amount learned by the non-user.

That said, some schools and organizations ban computers in the classroom, some don’t. Accommodation for special needs students can raise issues of privacy as well as ”fairness” as perceived by students without special needs.

In my experience, banning electronics sends you down the rabbit hole of monitoring and attempting to discipline students who are determined to have it their way, even if they know their use will lessen their learning.

Save yourself the hassle and the formal complaints, but try not to allow students who choose not use the devices to have their learning negatively impacted. Allow students who do not use computers to sit where they are not disturbed if they so choose.

https://ctl.yale.edu/Using-Electronic-Devices-in-Class

https://www.brookings.edu/research/for-better-learning-in-college-lectures-lay-down-the-laptop-and-pick-up-a-pen/

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    I'd like to point out that I almost always have my laptop open during lectures, yet never was distracted by the type you mention. What the hugest distraction for me has been, is that I was simultaneously solving exercises for different classes. It's true that this multitasking makes one less focused (by much) on the current lecture, but that can be tolerated in some cases and the benefit IMO outweighs the negative effects (or at least what I perceive to be them) – lucidbrot Jan 2 '18 at 7:52
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    I don't get your second source: what are we supposed to read? You could add as sources doi.org/10.1007/BF02940852 doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581 or doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2012.10.003 , for instance. – Clément Jan 2 '18 at 14:30
  • I replaced the second link. Thanks for yours. As I mentioned, there are numerous reports/studies on this topic. – user82849 Jan 2 '18 at 16:15
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I think you will get bogged down in the enforcer role here and it will detract from your teaching. Some of the best instructors I had knew at which point of their lecture they should ask questions and took the time to learn students names. Then you can first ask the questions to people goofing off, and follow up with someone paying attention. The peer pressure to know the answers could help people focus.

6

If you would like to ban devices from your classroom, I think that's your call as an instructor. It's part of your academic freedom at most institutions to conduct your class the way you'd like. I imagine you would enforce it by asking any student caught using a device to put it away or, perhaps on repeat offenses, to bring it to the front of the room for retrieval after class. You would not be first instructor who's done this.

But to me, thirty students is big to be called a seminar. With thirty students, not everyone gets to talk as much as they might want. Sometimes they'll be simply waiting their turn to speak or checking out, waiting for the discussion to come back to something they're interested in. That sounds a lot like the faculty meetings I go to. We usually get about twenty-five, all there to listen to presentations and participate in discussions of faculty business. But we all have laptops and smartphones and many are using them. I don't know why I'd expect students to behave differently than faculty.

On occasion, I find it helpful that students have laptops in my own lectures (in CS) when a question comes up that I can't answer (which happens a lot :). If I don't want to take the time to do it myself, I might ask, can someone do the experiment or Google the answer?

Also, since I publish my lecture slides just before each lecture, I find that a lot of students are legitimately using their laptops to look at slides, which can sometimes be more readable on their laptops than on the screen from way in the back of the room.

So I think you can ban devices and I think you can enforce it. You can try it and see what happens. But I also think you're fighting the tide. Connectivity is here to stay. I can't say if you'll see other results you hope for, but the one result I do predict is that the students will be unhappy with you and it will probably show up in your student evals.

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I wouldn't recommend banning laptops outright as a global course policy, because:

  1. Many students need electronic devices to accommodate learning disabilities. Laying down a coursewide ban would prevent them from doing so, which is not what you want (and probably against university policy).
  2. Many students who may not need laptops still work better with them due to the affordances they provide, such as digital ink (on Surface devices, tablets, and some Chromebooks) and the ability to store their notes in the cloud.
  3. The research you cited from UT-Austin, indeed almost all the research claiming negative effects of laptops on student classroom performance, is situated in the context of lecture pedagogy. Your seminar is not (I hope!) going to use lecture often or at all, so that research doesn't really apply to your case. In fact you can imagine situations where having laptops available could really help in a seminar class in terms of searching up information and so on.
  4. In fact if you scratch the surface on a lot of these ban-the-laptop articles, there is either no mention of pedagogy whatsoever (so, just immediately ignore the results) or it assumes you are just lecturing. In the latter case, the results of the studies may be true, but you could make an equal case that lectures ought to be banned, not laptops.

Briefly, a better approach to technology would consist of:

  • Creating a class environment and designing learning activities for students that keep them active, and so either their laptops are used as a tool for learning or else they are working hard enough on something else that screwing around on a laptop isn't a viable option for them. And,
  • Rather than banning, work with the students (maybe on the first day of class) to come up with some reasonable boundaries for acceptable/unacceptable use. Like anything else, when the students have some ownership on the rules then they are a lot more likely to follow them.

I wrote a bit more about all this at my blog here: http://rtalbert.org/laptop-bans-and-assumptions/

Michelle Miller also has a great article about this here: https://michellemillerphd.com/addiction-accommodation-and-better-solutions-to-the-laptop-problem/

3

Why do you want to ban electronic devices?

A. You do it for the sake of those (~20%) students that use laptops etc - you believe this will help them concentrate, study better, understand the material, provide fewer distractions etc.

or

B. You do it for the sake of the other (~80%) students, that currently do not use devices - you hope that this will lead to more participation, improve the quality of the lecture etc.

If the answer is A, then just don't. You do not know what's best for them, and I'm assuming they are old enough to make their own decisions (yes, even if they will fail the class).

On the other hand, if the answer is B, I suggest you talk to the students during the first lesson, explaining your reasoning (maybe suggest that it's also polite to listen to other students talking/presenting and not use a device at this time; and/or tell them to sit in the back if they intend to use a laptop). Afterwards, ask the students to minimize electronic devices use and leave it at that. Do not try to enforce anything - this isn't elementary school.

2

From my experience as a student, I would suggest you don't. Simply call it out at the very beginning of the seminar, day 1 you introduce yourself in a loud, clear tone, then say that you don't like seeing people distracted by technology.

Mention that this is especially because it distracts those around them as well, and could you all please leave the phone in the pocket, save for those that are actually typing away notes on a laptop just please focus on the seminar.

That has the highest rate of success by far and you still come off as professional and friendly. If you see someone smiling at their phone, just politely call ask them to focus (so whole room can hear that) and after 1-2 such callouts everyone gets the idea that they will be humiliated if they do this, and they will stop unless they're rude morons. At that stage, let it go. Need to treat people like adults, if they want to come in and waste their time that's their loss, just don't let them get in the way of others who are there to learn.

1

Don't ban the electronic devices, ban the distractions.

Laptops and the like can have useful features (like note taking) which shouldn't be taken foregranted because they can actually help students.

Instead you should look into how viable it would be to block distracting websites like the most common social media websites - facebook, twitter et cetera.

If a student tries to get on social media, only to receive a page from the university saying "This site is blocked, get back to work", it'll hopefully discourage them from distractions.

It won't eliminate distractions but it'll make it marginally harder for students to get distracted, and it'll certainly make them think twice about focusing on the seminar.


Ideally it would be possible to block all internet connections within the room to stop people using the internet during the seminar, but that may not be a viable option.

(And to pre-empt the "what if someone wants to look up a definition or something?" - doing so would also be a distraction. If someone doesn't understand some terminology they should ask the teacher as soon as possible. There may be more than one student that doesn't understand the term, so it could be more beneficial to ask outright anyway, than to have 4 students silently googling a term while the lecture runs on and they start missing bits.)

-1

The course is fairly small, with fewer than 30 students. We will spend most of the time in the course listening to students presenting their ideas, and the students critiquing and giving feedback on other students' presentations.

Banning electronic devices can simulate cases where such devices are forbidden/inaccessible for a real reason. In such cases you cannot easily google the answer up.

As jaia allready noted, explain your reasons in the syllable clearly and leave options for those who must use ellectronic devices.

As I understood your desription, the course is focused on learning how to criticise someone's work and how to respond to a critique. There is no need of using electronic devices at all (except for people with special needs).

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