On the first day of class, I told my students that they are not allowed to use their phones in class. However, a lot of them use their cell phones and don't pay attention in class. How should I deal with this problem? Do you let students use their phones during the lecture?


20 Answers 20


Frame challenge:
You shouldn't, in fact, You cannot.
This is academia, not kindergarten.
These are adult people and are completely free to do whatever they want in their life as long as they are not disrupting other people. Whatever the results of their actions are, are on them and solely on them. You are not allowed to dictate other people's lives, in classroom or anywhere else. You trying to enforce such a rule would be as ridiculous as trying to dictate what colors should they be using while taking notes - and in fact, whether they take notes at all.

While I consider the above argument sufficient, I would like to point out a few supplementary points. On the flip side, other answers already pointed out that phones (being nothing else than small computers) can be very useful for students. People may take notes, record the class to listen again later and take pictures of the slides and blackboard notes. They can check the definitions on the internet and play around with equations on Wolfram Alpha while listening to You talk about these equations at the same time.

On the other hand, if You will try to go through with this, You will very quickly loose any and all respect. People do not take kindly to having their lives dictated by a person at position of power.

It should be also noted that common decency rules about phones apply in class the same way they apply in cinema or opera. People are expected to keep all their devices completely silent - the 'not disrupt other people' part of the fundamental rule is as important as the 'complete freedom' part.

EDIT: I would encourage all the commentators to point out WHAT culture do they belong to. It seems to me, seeing the comments, that it's one of those many questions where You will get WIDELY different answers depending on the place where a given person lives. For that matter, I would also like to point out that I speak from the European perspective.

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    Exactly. Modern phones are almost fully-fledged computers that can and SHOULD be of tremendous aid in teaching and studying. Focusing on non-area specific issues (use of phones, attendance, why someone's absent, why someone's not done homework etc.) detracts from efficient teaching/learning processes. And you can't make a true scientist out of someone. He/she only himself/herself can reach that. You can give a lot of knowledge but if someone doesn't work hard enough, there's not much to be done. The carrot and stick policy is not the be-all and end-all, not by a long shot.
    – Ken Draco
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 10:08
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    What's next, "it's in the Constitution"? This isn't about freedom. This is about a teacher who has a moral responsibility to help their students learn even when they would rather do something else that hampers their learning. Crossing the magical age of 18 does not mean this responsibility has gone away. And you forget one thing - they don't have "the right" to attend the class. The professor and the university are allowing them to attend, and they can make rules.
    – user9646
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 14:12
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    @user2357 Well it seems to me that You see it the 'US' way. Here in Europe the education is a right. And here in Europe we protect individual's rights and freedoms, and yes, I make this about freedom. Whatever teacher's moral code is or is not, it does not give him right to infringe on the student's freedom. Moreover 18 is not a magical barrier, it is a LEGAL barrier, and your or whomever else moral code again cannot be above that. Neither can University.
    – Maciej
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 16:33
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    @Empischon You are reversing everything. Libertarianism as you describe in your answer is definitely the US way. Making it "about freedom" is definitely American. I'm from Europe, and in fact a country whose national motto features the word "liberty" in first position. And you're right, education per se is a right. Attending a particular course is not. Some rights are inalienable, but most of them have conditions attached. And I started typing this comment before reading the last part about me being a dictator, so I'll leave you to your delusions. It's frankly embarrassing.
    – user9646
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 16:51
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    Lose respect? Ridiculous. If you are genuine in your position to help students, you won't lose respect. Lives dictated? They're there for 50-80 minutes. Give me a break, people should be able to sit still. And most importantly, the bright screens DO distract students. Even movie theatres (in Canada) put up an advertisement before the movie that screens shouldn't be used because they distract others around them. Yes, they can do whatever they want, just not in my classroom. (And from teaching thousands of students, I have gotten endless course reviews that I actually care about the classroom.)
    – user136
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 17:51

Well, we are educating adults - and they should be able to decide what's good for them and what's bad.

Of course, this philosophy does not work out really well in real classrooms - but some students are using their phones to look up terms I used or check concepts I was teaching online - yes, it really happens!

What I'm doing is confronting them with the results of such behaviour: I'm telling students, that they failed a test because of their phone usage (not only in class but in general). From time to time I demonstrate that they do not follow the course by taking someone as an example for something who is currently using the phone and they do not recognize we are talking about them.

But if you take it too serious, you can only lose.

  • 14
    I agree, and especially on "if you take it too serious, you can only lose". I was talking to a friend, a teacher of mathematics, who was on a crusade to ban cell phones from his class. Up to four or five years ago, he used to succeed, but lately he had to give up, because of ever increasing resistance from the students. The phone has became a primary necessity. I agree with my friend that using one in class is disrespectful, and that it does disrupt focus (with the rare exceptions you mention), but you simply cannot take it away from students anymore. Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 14:52
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    These answers are too black and white. Sure, if you're arbitrary about rules, students hate you. But when I institute classroom control, I explain that I am fostering a good learning space. If you do that in a sincere and caring way, students actually will understand and also feel cared for. If I sense that students are getting tired from too much math, I give them a break and tell them to chill. That solves the phone problem. Rules don't exist to constrict their behaviour, but to maximize their potential to learn. If you convey that to them, and are serious about it, you will never lose.
    – user136
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 18:05
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    Already I might fear your class. Confronting students to tell them that they failed something because of their (cell) phone usage seems a bit presumptuous on your part. Perhaps they failed to learn properly because your lectures were equally confrontational rather than educational. Would you not rather say that you consult with students to help them discover where they can improve their learning skills, and reducing the time spent being distracted on cell phones is given as but one example. Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 0:47
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    I would almost +1 this, but I don't see how "I'm telling students, that they failed a test because of their phone usage" is practical/feasible (granted long time between behavior/result, difficulty of the instructor remembering it, etc.) Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 4:10
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    I am a 100% autodidact. I am simply not able to listen to and learn from lecturers for prolonged periods of time. If I don't have some device to read things in parallel (Lecturer: "Now for randomness..."; Me: looks up randomness and read intro on it), I won't grasp anything. If I have mastered schools, then only because I either did my own studies during lessons (not so easy in the 90s), or because I actually learned after lessons (libraries in the 90s, internet from 2000s on). If you'd tell me I failed because of my phone, then you'd simply be wrong and ignorant. -1, if I could.
    – phresnel
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 12:23

When I was teaching, if a student was being disruptive in some way such as talking, I found that singling them out and asking them kindly to stop their behaviour is extremely effective.

I disagree with most of the comments here with regard to phone use. I think you should use the same strategy (for extended phone use). Random phone use is distracting to many students because of the bright screens in front of them or beside them, and those students should be protected. Yes, they are adults essentially, but the transition to adulthood is not an instantaneous one and there are enough immature and wayward youths in university to make a little classroom control go a long way for the many timid students in the class who are actually there to learn and not check Facebook.

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    An analysis professor in my undergrad course did a different, but very effective thing, if the murmurs were too loud for him. He started talking in a lower and lower voice. Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 10:13
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    the phone is no brighter than the dozens of laptop or tablet screens that are surely also open
    – NKCampbell
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 17:50
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    @NKCampbell ...which is exactly why many faculty forbid laptops and tablets in their lectures.
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 21:50
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    As someone who was a student not too long ago - professors who liked to single out students with phones and made a show out of someone using their phone were generally found very irritating. And their behavior also made me think - if they are so focused on tracking people with phones, are they really focused on their lecture? Are they insecure if someone's phone makes it impossible for them to continue with their lecture, even though the person with the phone is more quite than their phoneless counterparts? Or is this narcissism - demanding 100% attention?
    – parsecer
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 8:44
  • Neither of those reasons are respectable, if you ask my opinion. Actually, the best lecturers - those who made lectures interesting and really useful - didn't care that much about phones. People listened to them and didn't bother with phones because their lecture was interesting, their manner of presentation was charismatic and not monotonous. And those who were in their phones were not singled out, he had a lecture to read and couldn't be bothered with them. Plus, they themselves knew what they were missing out - because his lectures were more interesting and comprehensible than books.
    – parsecer
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 8:47

If it bothers you, stop class a second. Tell them to please put their phones away. Proceed.

Personally I don't much care, though it does bug me for example when I take precious class time out of the syllabus to review for an exam, which I need primarily for a few lagging students, and the slacks are playing with their phones rather than listening. At which point I'll embarrass them by asking them to listen.

Just don't make too big a deal of demanding everyone turns the phones or ringers off (unless you have to single out someone who has a really loud one or which goes off a lot) because sooner or later you own phone will ring in class and you'll look like a fool if you acted like it was verboten.

  • Embarrasing the students is a dangerous thing: if assistance is not compulsory, they may stop all together, which is a worse outcome.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 10:42

In my college/university classrooms, I find it effective to employ three strategies with respect to electronic devices: 1) Acknowledge the student's responsibility, 2) Enable the student's agency, and 3) Intervene to prevent disruption.

In general, I leave it to each student to determine how to use (or not to use) electronic devices in class. They are adults who are in charge of their own education. On the first day of class (and as necessary afterwards) I verbally acknowledge the student's responsibility to make decisions that further their education objectives. I do so in order to prevent them from thinking that the electronic device policy has been imposed from on high, which would externalize motivation and also create an antagonistic relationship between teacher and student.

Unfortunately, many students are woefully unaware of the research that shows how reliance on electronic devices can diminish learning. So in order to enable the student's agency, I provide them with brief recommendations on how technology could be used profitably in my course (in order to help them understand what works) but also with brief characterizations of the potential pitfalls (in order to help them understand what will probably be harmful to them). With such guidance, they're far more likely to settle into better habits than if I said nothing. Moreover, they're put in a position to make informed rather than ignorant decisions.

There are still classroom management issues that come along with electronic devices being used. If a student in the front row is shopping or watching videos on their laptops, everyone behind the student will be distracted. So I intervene to prevent disruption when there's a demonstrable effect on the learning environment. Usually, that's a matter of asking the student to put away the device (rather than trying to take it away). I'm careful not to scold the student, but instead state plainly and briefly why I'm asking that the device be turned off. If the student protests that the use is urgent or somehow otherwise legitimate, I won't argue. I ask them to step into the hall until the business is concluded so that it's not a distraction to the other students. A brief glance at the faces of the other students is usually enough for the offender to realize that there was in fact a problem, so the matter rarely goes beyond that.

If the reasons for your electronic device policy weren't established at the beginning of the semester, students might think that it's merely arbitrary (and easily dismissed--or forgotten). There's no reason that you couldn't present your reasons now, though. If those reasons involve some sort of need for a universal prohibition, you're likely to get better compliance from the students if they understand why.


I don't mind my students use their cellphones in class. In fact, I encourage to use them by tossing open questions in systems like Mentimeter or even a simple Google form can do the job of attracting the student's attention and provide real-time feedback on the topic you are presenting. Just be creative and use technology on your favor!

  • 9
    Integrating the technology into the classroom in a constructive way is quite different from random, unrelated use, of course.
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 0:49
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    I too have used Mentimeter in my teaching. I have found it rather helpful and the student's have enjoyed it too. But I also feel that such a usage is besides the point that the OP is making.
    – Phil
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 9:52

It seems to me that the issue sounds like an ego-trip (even if it's not). Making an issue out of it sends a very clear message to your students - I need validation as a teacher because I need it, and your phone usage disrupts my ego boost to have all eyes on me. Would it make a difference if they were taking notes? Probably not. So, to me, that's your issue.

In general, the state of phone usage is probably tied directly to interest and motivation. (Yes you're going to get deviations to that metric - like "I needed to look up a term I was unfamiliar with").

Is your class motivated? Is the material engaging, relevant? If not, maybe it should be?! If yes, maybe you need to explain why! Perhaps the mere fact that students are using their phones suggests otherwise.

In a class dedicated to surgery and learning the particulars of anatomy, I would think that students who use a phone should be simply told to leave (not publicly, but after the class, privately) - whoever heard of a surgeon in the middle of a procedure checking his/her smartphone? That's the point - it is socially unacceptable - you can't be a good doctor if you're simply not motivated and committed to learning the procedures. Being on your phone is simply counterproductive to that cause.

If you want to send a clear message - at the start of your year, you can say that offenders will be told to leave the class (privately, of course, don't humiliate people in public).

But there is a lot of research to say that students don't listen well anyway to lectures. The question is what is being gained by hearing you speak? To be fully engaged is not to take notes, but simply listen (which for most students is undesirable since they would want to retain the information - and so they need to be half-engaged to take notes). So perhaps you need to explain your terms better so that students will not feel the need to look up past material or terminology. This article seems to suggest that students should be using the Cornell method of taking notes in order to retain the information.

  • 1
    The students must at least meet the instructor halfway. Even the best teacher in the world can't force motivation upon students (see: Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do). I don't see why the case of learning anatomy, and asking "socially unacceptable" students to leave, differs from any other learning environment. Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 4:08
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    Because there are some classes that are just considered to be of a higher status than others. That's just the reality of Universities. I hardly imagine that a graduate-level engineering course would have students checking their phones compared with an undergraduate latin course. But in principle there should be no difference. In university you're supposed to be learning how to navigate the world - part of that is realizing that checking your phone when you're in a meeting with your boss, or doing surgery is just not okay.
    – user99935
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 5:34
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    I don't see why students need to 'meet' half-way? Why should this be a socially acceptable practice, whilst others not - do students shout and scream and talk in a university-level class? No. If they do, they'll be asked to stop or leave (publically). I'm suggesting the same, but privately so as not to humiliate them. This is an undesirable socially unacceptable thing to do, just because people do it, doesn't make it okay. The OP has every right to stop it in her class.
    – user99935
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 5:37
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    Motivation obviously comes from the students, but if the material presented is boring, and not engaging, then you're going to lose the battle.
    – user99935
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 5:38
  • I'd argue that motivation comes from some mysterious place. But yes, I very much agree that it'll make a big difference both (1) how engaging the material naturally is (grammar is, to most people, not inherently inspiring, say) and (2) how it's presented. For instance, in my programming courses, I found it difficult to get anything out of watching the lecturer write code. I like coding, and I like learning to code; watching someone else code was difficult to follow and consequently completely uninteresting.
    – Mathieu K.
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 1:16

If you think students shouldn't use their phones because it's distracting you can do what one professor of mine did. He showed how multitasking actually makes it so you do both tasks at a much worse level with a small example. He asked one person to volunteer who thinks they are good at multitasking. One person comes to the front of the class. He says, ok, count to 26 and recite the alphabet while swapping each time. So the student says 1,a,2,b,3,c,... etc, until they inevitably fail because this task isn't as easy as it seems. These are two things that the student is extremely comfortable doing, just like paying attention or using a phone, but they failed only while trying to do both. Displaying WHY it's bad to multitask (without a clear purpose, like looking up some missed content) is much better than saying just don't do something. If a student really thinks they can look at their phone and learn the lesson, show them why they can't.

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    I'm pretty sure saying "1, a, 2, b, 3, c, ..., 26, z" is much easier than you're making it sound. I just tried it. There's probably some physical coordination exercises (like "draw a circle with one hand and a square with the other at the same time") that could work as a better example.
    – user92734
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 1:18
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    that's also an entirely different type of multitasking than passive listening
    – NKCampbell
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 17:51

One of the best things any of my professors have done is given us a reading which discouraged any form of computer use within the classroom. The classic one is the Fried article (Fried, C. B. (2008). In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers & Education, 50(3), 906-914.) about laptop use.

As a technology professor, Shirky (https://medium.com/@cshirky/why-i-just-asked-my-students-to-put-their-laptops-away-7f5f7c50f368) posted about his approach with laptops.

Truth is, I would ask any students who want to use technology to sit in the back of the room. If you want to sit in the front and take notes, use a notepad.


Make your sessions interesting and innovative,so that they won't be using their mobiles.let me give you an example ,in our physics class teachers use to explain to us how the apparatus ,which is in our lab works . Instead of just telling how it works why can't they take us to the lab and explain it to us by performing the experiment . Practical classes are more interesting than theory like wise don't just be explaining something thinking that everyone knows the basics of it so just by telling plainly you can explain to them from basics each time so that students will think ,he is teaching from basics at least now we will listen and understand

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    Instead of just walking into the class and explaining something that you know , which others have no idea about, especially when you think that others will understand what your talking about is absolutely wrong.first always know that there is no wrong in explaining everything in detail and students will like more of a practical class than theory so if you can give a practical example ,make sure you do that . sitting in one place and learning everything which is out there is so boring .
    – user211277
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 17:11

You state that you told the students not to use their phones. Your desired behavior is clear. They are ignoring you. My recommendation to your question of what to do when they ignore you depends on your answer to this question:

Why do you care?

--> Using a phone is unabashedly and unambiguously disrupting and distracting more than just a few others in class.

  • Such disrespect must be nipped harshly by example for everyone. When a student pulls out a phone, stop lecturing. Stare at and/or walk over to the student with the phone. Say calmly but firmly ... "My class policy is that you are not to use phones during lectures. Your use of the phone is disrupting other students from learning. We will wait until you put away your phone to continue the lecture." Do this for perhaps three times. At the next instance, stop entirely. Say nothing. Wait until the phone is put away. Then say ... "We've waited until after the disruption with the phone has stopped. Unfortunately, this means I have to skip the lecture material that I would have covered in the meantime. Perhaps next time, when anyone wants to use a phone, you will leave the class first. Otherwise, I leave everyone in the class to appreciate that from now on even one person can be the cause of not be able to provide all the lecture content for everyone. Perhaps you all should figure out how to fix this problem that I apparently cannot despite my best efforts to do so."

--> Using a phone is annoying you (and absolutely no one else).

--> Using a phone when you asked them not to is disrespectful to you.

  • Learn to ignore this problem. Get on with giving your lecture to the students who are paying attention. It does no good to carry the battle to a war. At best, on occasions when the annoyance gets too high, stop the lecture and just say so ... "My class policy is that you are not to use phones during lectures. One reason is because I get easily distracted. Another is because I want to engage with you rather than teach to you. The level of phone use has become annoying to me to a point where I cannot continue well. Let's try putting away all cell phones for this lecture and leaving them put away for the next lecture. I'll wait until you've put them securely out of the way and then I will continue the lecture."

--> Using the phone seems to be annoying only one or two others in the class.

  • Such behavior should be pointed out as being disrespectful. Again, stop and stare and/or walk over to the student with the phone. Say calmly but firmly ... "My class policy is that you are not to use phones during lectures. Your use of the phone seems to be annoying other students. Please be respectful, put away your phone, and we can continue the lecture without the annoyance." Handle this each time as disrespectful. After enough times, take a moment at the start of class to remind the class of the general policy. For students who continue to ignore the policy and continue to annoy others, pull them aside for an office visit and dig deeper.

In the future, you might structure a written class policy in your Course Outline. Mine says something akin to this: The use of cell phone, tablet devices, computers, and camera recording devices is strictly prohibited during quizzes and exams. Anyone caught violating this policy may have the respective quiz or exam grade reduced to zero. Cell phones should be kept off and placed out of use during lectures. Extenuating circumstances are recognized. Please go outside the classroom to handle emergencies.

Finally, as background, I teach in the US, and I am not teaching first year students (fresh from high school) any more. I admit my approach may be hash for the first year levels, where I have heard that a bit more "coddling" is sometimes required to handle disruptive situations. Also, by the time the students get to my junior and senior level classes, they are rather aware that playing on a phone during lecture is entirely their loss not mine.

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    I like this answer, but I can't see much difference between your first and last case: first case reads like "it's annoying to everybody" and last case like "it's annoying to some people". Your suggestion on how to handle the situations do not seem that different either.
    – penelope
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 14:15
  • The first case is one where you see a definitive disruption. It takes a higher level of proof and a higher level of "annoyance" than the first case. Example First Case: the noise from a movie or a "cluster" of students all engaged clearly blocks/distracts others from seeing/hearing. Example Last Case: The phone drops on the floor and distracts another student. Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 23:59

I'm an older (40yo) college student. I've sat in classes where prof said put away phones. I don't sit on my phone, but if I get a text or call, I know it's important and will answer it. If prof has a problem with that, they can kiss my you-know-what.

The problem is that most college classes are not 40-something adults monitoring their phones for critical issues (eg: sick kiddo at home, emergency with elderly parents, etc). Most are young teen / 20-something who are bored in class and use it as a distraction.

My suggestion is ... as long as they're not distracting the rest of the class, let them mess with their phone.

Had one prof up-front say during "syllabus" day that they don't restrict folks messing around with their laptops or phones. But, if that's all a student wants to do, then please sit in the back of the class where it won't be a distraction.

The whole point of pay-for classes is that students can find the right way to learn that suits themself. Some like to read the book. Others want to be taught in class. They all still show up to class to catch key information that prof may give out.

Likewise, in some classes, the students look like they're messing around on their phones when really they're all working on a collective Google Doc notes doc taking notes in class. They're listening to the prof and writing the notes out on their phones, colaboratively. And, they're texting with each other to clarify spots without interrupting class to do so.

So, kids aren't just "screwing around" on their phones. You have a generation growing up with advanced skills in multi-tasking and leveraging on-demand technology to solve all kinds of problems.

If the phone is not a distraction to the rest of the class, then let it go.

If it's a distraction to you, because you look up and see half the class not paying attention ... well, that's your own problem.

As a college student, if I pay money for a class, I'm a customer. I can waste my time in the class if I want. I can ignore the professor if I want. If it's impacting my grade, then it's my own fault and I deal with it.

If professor is boring and not doing enough to keep everyone's attention, that's the professor's fault. I've had professors that bore me to tears, or drone on and on. They are not very engaging. It's easy to lose interest in them.

When you're standing up there looking out and seeing half the class not paying attention to you, you can either get used to it, or become more engaging / compelling to watch as a professor. I'm not saying you need to put on a stand-up routine and get the crowd laughing. Just that a dynamic professor that's telling stories and relating real-world experience so the class can understand how the material being taught is actually relevant is far more engaging then a professor rambling on like an adult out of a Peanuts cartoon.

If students not paying attention is hurting them, then they will get bad grades on tests. The universe balances it out that way.

When they approach you at the end of the semester begging for a better grade, you just say "oh, you were the person in class that was always on your phone and never paid attention to me.. well, you can sit there and plead your case to me on why I should help you with your grade, but while you're doing so I'm going to be on my phone and ignoring you, so..."

But, as an older college student (been in working world for 20 years and quit to come back full-time) I do NOT abide professors laying down extracurricular rules on me like... mandatory attendance, no phones allowed.. and other non-sense. I'm a grown adult. I have emergencies happening in my life (elderly parents, wife dealing with health issues, etc). I'm not going to ask a professor "mother may I" to skip a class in order to handle real-world crap in my life. And I'm not going to apologize to a professor for pulling my phone out if I get a text and worry if one of my parents died or something. I have paid money for the class, and I decide when I want to attend and when I want to ignore the professor.

Since I paid money, it's in my best interest to attend class and not use my phone in order to pay attention. But, if I attend several classes and find the professor drones on, or they don't cover the material that is on the test.. I'll eventually just stop going to class and just read the book and ignore them. Or, I'll come to class and work on other work on my laptop while ignoring them. (Because these types of professors always seem to get a power trip and want to "zing" students for not paying attention, eg: they'll only announce test dates in class and never email them to people missing class).

So, just learn to ignore students on their phones and let their test scores speak for themselves.

If a student doesn't pay attention in class, then approaches you after to class to go over everything again... tell them to go buzz off and read the book. You spent your time to relay information. If they didn't take the time to pay attention, that's their problem.

  • Although I in general philosophically disagree with the consumer-oriented point of view in this answer, I think that your point about "40-something adults monitoring their phones for critical issues" is very important; the context of who is in your class matters for this (and similar issues like rescheduling exams). I hope that point doesn't get lost among the many answers to this questions.
    – kcrisman
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 1:14

I had a professor who absolutely did not allow phone use in the classroom. Written into the syllabus was a clause that stated, for each time he saw you on your phone, you lost 50 points towards your final grade, which is equivalent to half a letter grade.

Did it completely deter everyone, including me, from using their phones? No, however, we were very discrete and non disruptive when we did.

This was a graduate level class.

  • 1
    I have a colleague who gives your grade a 2 percent haircut for phone usage. His personal story of overcoming educational hardships is so compelling that he definitely has the moral authority to pull it off, too; if I were a student in his class I would be ashamed to be wasting my luck at having a comfortable university education with checking Snapchat.
    – kcrisman
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 1:30

You're fighting a losing battle. Are some students simply playing games and ultimately hurting themselves? Maybe. But I've learned that many students also use their phones in a myriad of productive ways during class. They might photograph a diagram on the whiteboard. They might be taking notes. They could be using the calculator.

I remember one class when a student asked me a question about my lecture. I told him I didn't know the answer. Then another student spoke up and answered the question for me. I asked the student, "Oh, you knew that already?"

The student answered, "No, but I was wondering that same thing, so I looked it up."

That moment changed my thinking in a lot of ways.

I was once in your shoes; I used to try to prohibit cell phone use in class. I still encourage students to not use their "electronic pacifiers" as a way to alleviate boredom. But with that comes a promise that I will work hard to make our class time engaging and worthwhile. For example, my class leverages in-class activities such as think-pair-share, I do my best to incorporate humor into my lecture slides, I use the Socratic method, I tell stories, and I will occasionally let class out early if I feel like we've covered a topic enough and I'd only be boring them by trying to use up the last 10 minutes. I create every lecture with the mindset that all of my students would probably rather be doing something else, and I think of ways to keep the class lively, engaging, and productive.

I used to tell my students that I would prefer they not use their phones in class. Now I use an analogy instead. I say, "Just like an airline will ask you to put your phone into airplane mode before takeoff, I'll ask you to put your phone into classroom mode." In other words, turn off your ringers, silence your notifications, and avoid opening apps like Facebook.

Then the onus is on me to deliver a presentation so engaging that the students don't even think to get out their phones unless they are doing so for a good reason.


There are several approaches. One is to educate students about why it's not good to hope they make good decisions on their own. Another approach is to provide some motivation in the form of a disincentive (punishment).

I find that students who use their phones in class do worse on exams, on average, than students who don't. I teach statistics, so if I were very motivated to illustrate this to students, I could track how many days I see which students on their phones on the roster and find the actual correlation between phone use and exam scores for the class.

Another approach might be to announce that the use of phones will increase the probability of a pop quiz for the entire class. This disincentive should also encourage self-policing among the students. Then, you would need to be prepared with the occasional pop quiz until the students stop using phones in class. (Is that too Machiavellian?)

Of course, you could always ignore the issue. The students will reap the rewards of their own decisions.

  • 1
    "Students who use their phones in class do worse on exams..." Correlation does not generally imply causation.
    – paw88789
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 2:04
  • 1
    @paw88789 Though in this case, there is other research as well that is pretty indicative of causation, such as the study measuring the decreased comprehension of people who have the misfortune of just sitting near laptop users. Truly, correlation does not imply causation, but it's hard to reason around that one any other way. Screen use, when screens are not actively part of the learning, detract from learning.
    – Ben I.
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 13:34
  • @BenI. Thanks. Such research then gives another reason not to have cellphone usage during class
    – paw88789
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 15:06

Let them do, witnessed personally that going after them is a huge waste of time for everyone, if they don't want to pay attention it's their choice, just tell them they're on their own if they lag behind.


My personal experience is that using a computer is extremely distracting to a degree that those students probably miss most of what you say. This experience comes from two sources:

  1. From myself when I goof off during boring online meetings and start reading the news (or stackoverflow ;-) ): I immediately miss most of the conversation.

  2. From teaching a weekly math club with elementary school students. Even the 11 year olds desperately wanted to boot the computer in the room and do something with it, anything. When they succeeded they were completely zoned out and didn't participate at all any longer. The math club was voluntary so when they didn't stop trying to get to the computer I told them that they are there voluntarily; they need not be there if they are not interested. That helped.

There is the additional aspect of respect which may be a generational thing (I'm 54): I become immediately and extremely annoyed if my conversation partner (in a private or professional setting) starts using a phone. I respond by abruptly stopping talking. That usually gets their attention, so that they look at me again. I continue; when they goof off again, I stop again. They usually are surprised but get it. If they ask, I tell them that they have all the time in the world finishing the urgent phone business and that I'll continue when they are done.

I would not tolerate phone use in my class, and I'm surprised that the vast majority here seems to be OK with it or at least considers it an unwinnable battle.

I would use whatever sanctions you have; in particular, if you can, I'd throw offenders out for the lesson after a first warning, and maybe even throw them out of the course for repeats: Because they are so very obviously not interested in what you say. To avoid temptation I'd suggest they turn off the devices when they enter the classroom.

(You may want to talk that through with your students to avoid misunderstandings; let them sign a little sheet with these rules so they cannot claim they missed it later. You can also ask them whether anybody needs to be reachable during class for emergency calls, e.g. from elderly relatives or children, and allow taking such calls, after leaving the classroom.)


First, how big is the class size...A huge lecture class vs a small class makes a difference. It'd be more 'rude' seeming in a small class to whip out a phone and use it.

I would make the distinction between using the phone as a phone or just pulling it out and glancing at it and again using it to type on for a period of time. Also, is the phone making noise...I definitely would stress MUTING their phones.

I mean, if somebody pulls it out and starts talking on it, without making an effort to leave -- that's rude to everybody.

A quick glance -- ok...maybe OK.

Pulling it out and using it -- depends on why and how long/often they do so...you may want to ask the person WHY, discretely later -- because maybe you could alter your lectures to better get the information across .

The frequency/duration could also be asked too...I mean maybe it's them, maybe it's you...but at least maybe you could see what is up with them.

Although, if you notice that it is distracting to other people, you should opt to discourage it -- or move the offenders into their own section away from other people.

I don't think today that you could or should totally ban it...but mitigate it definitely or work to include it. If someone is legitimately using it to learn, why shouldn't they.

For me, in Grad School, I had a laptop (this was in the pre-wifi days and pre-ebooks -- so I couldn't do what people could now) which I used...but mostly to type out class notes, because my handwriting was Doctorish -- and sometimes I was like what the heck did I write...so...using technology isn't necessarily bad.


Try offering positive reinforcement for voluntary cell phone surrender. I give students a very small amount of extra credit, applied to their next exam mark, for every day that they leave their phones at the front of the classroom. This gives them an 'excuse' to not answer texts/emails immediately in class, and even though the extra credit is insignificant, they like it. If someone does not want to surrender their phone- I don't ask why. It's their choice. For those who do, they get a different learning experience. This is in a small college in Canada.


My experience teaching small classes (not 100-person lectures) that place a high premium on in-class engagement is that cell phone use not only distracts me, it can easily distract other students. But I also have found that public shaming of all manner of distracting behaviors can be counterproductive - no surprise, in retrospect.

So often I will take about thirty more seconds of whatever I'm talking about, then turn to the board (I teach in a quantitative field with a lot of examples on a screen or board) and make up an example that somehow involves the issue. Like "Imagine the power on your phone is P and you're using it right now, what would the graph of P against time look like?" Very silly, but it gets the point across and I really do consistently see sheepish looks and phones disappearing.

Of course, I have other strategies like talking to students after class, calling on someone who seems to be distracted (and then letting them down gently or repeating the question), etc. Some people are addicted, some are worried about family, many reasons they use it. But this seems to work pretty well if:

  • You have students who are used to you engaging fairly directly with the class, not just anonymously
  • You have students who agree with the premise that phone usage in class is poor form.

If you don't have the first point, this idea may just seem creepy. If your students don't agree with the second point, probably phone usage is not the biggest problem you face.

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