Inspired by another question where a user asks how to handle students with a phone, my question is from the opposite perspective: what is the correct response when a lecturer asks one to put away the phone?

This actually recently happened to me (a few months ago), and for obvious reasons (not wanting to interrupt the flow of the lecture, not wanting to have a falling out with the professor, etc), I just put my phone down.

But to be honest, I don't think that's the correct response, or at least I feel this is not the way it should be, because I find such demands inappropriate for a number of reasons, and so I shouldn't be giving in to them, should I?

My reasoning:

First of all, and this may sound immature, but what I do with my phone is none of the lecturer's business. As long as I am not disturbing anybody (audio is always off, I am never typing loudly because it's a touch-screen, and nobody is distracted by the screen because I make sure to sit in the back), it shouldn't be a problem.

Secondly, I find that such demands can impede my learning. I often use the phone to look up information related to what the lecturer is actually talking about. If a topic is mentioned that I don't quite recall, a quick google search or a 10-second glance at the topic's Wikipedia page brings me up to speed. Or perhaps the textbook for the course is on my cloud server and I need to the phone to actually access the book, if I didn't bring (or even buy) the physical copy.

Finally, I find it highly disrespectful to call a student out for being on a phone in the middle of a lecture in front of all others. Such conversations, if they need to be had, should be had in private. Approach me after the lecture or during the break if you have a problem. Don't call me out in front of the entire class.

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    I generally don't police such things but I am always genuinely puzzled why students who are clearly not paying attention and are instead doing something else on their phone/laptops in the back even come to my lecture. Mind you, I don't take attendance. I find this bizarre. Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 5:08
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    @SashoNikolov Generally, people's attention span is not made for 2 hour lectures, it's something like 15 to 20 minutes. However, our brain is clever, and sometimes even when you are not directly involved so much, you save some of that information. I tend to listen to bits that I know I don't get and the teaching on it is great, but when its something I already know or I can't even hear the professor, there is no point to it. There have been times I just gave up because the teaching made it impossible to learn the material. I doubt this is everyone, some people just really want to pass and go.
    – Lukali
    Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 11:19
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    "I find that such demands can impede my learning." Looking at your phone instead of listening to your instructor can also impede your learning. You might be overestimating your ability to multitask.The typical 1st year undergrad often does not know how to learn efficiently. It is to some extent the instructor's responsibility to help you learn, and insisting that you can do with your phone whatever you please, whenever you please, wherever you please is just as ridiculous as an absolute ban. Maybe you should listen to your instructor sometimes.
    – Szabolcs
    Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 13:38
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    @CaptainEmacs No it isn't, that's objectively wrong. The maximum is well short of an hour. There exist several good studies on this. Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 23:18
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    Something I learned in college was that it's part of your job as a student to help contribute to the class. If I'm top of my class, and I totally understand the material, it's not my job to check out - it's my job to find the less-successful students and help them. My attitude and demeanor in class (paying attention vs on my phone) affects the students around me and can encourage them to do better in class, or can send the message that this class doesn't matter and they shouldn't care. I have a responsibility to my community that I should strive to uphold.
    – Jerenda
    Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 19:01

16 Answers 16


this may sound immature

And it is.

You're acting as if you have the right to do what you want. You don't!

It's a teaching session in a building owned and run by other people and they set the rules and delegate the authority.

You have two legitimate choices (1) obey the rules and the authority or (2) leave.

If you want to protest the rule, contact your student union (a legitimate channel for complaints). You can pass your opinion along that way. However the decision still rests with the people in authority, and ultimately you will have to accept that fact.

Note also that the people making that decision are both experienced teachers and students themselves. You are not. Respect their experience.

There's one more important reason:

You are there to learn. You should be paying attention and listening. You may need to ask questions and you may miss something if you don't.

I watch a driving show where bad drivers are educated and it's astonishing to see how many of the bad drivers put forward all sorts of elaborate rationalizations for using a phone when driving. People are, simply, addicted to their phones. Learn to do without it. If you can't sit through a lecture without your phone, it bodes ill for when you hit the real world.

Note then if you were my employee and you started looking at your phone when I was presenting a report in a meeting, you'd be on your way to being fired.

The right you think you have to use a phone when you want does not exist.

Respect the rules other people set when using their resources.

It's that simple.

Finally, I find it highly disrespectful to call a student out for being on a phone in the middle of a lecture in front of all others

You are now experiencing the real world. The one where people call you out to your face and in public for your errors.

Get used to it. It's the difference between an adult and child. All part of learning.

How disrespectful were you being by ignoring the teacher? Did you think about that?

Immature is the right word.

Edit : regarding this and similar comments :

There are too many comments to address individually and this is as much effort as I'm willing to spend on this relatively small storm in a teacup. My gut feeling is this won't make people who oppose my viewpoint any happier, but they deserve some kind of response. But life's too short, so this is probably all I'll be doing on the subject.

Remember : Agree to Disagree is not ideal, but it's practical. :-)

One thing which could improve this answer is an acknowledgement that the OP is paying the institution for certain services and - unless he disturbs others - it's not the institution owning his time and not their place to order him around. The OP is not working for the professor, the professor is working for him.

That's not how it works ( in the real world :-) ).

The fantasy that "the professor is working for him" is not correct. What is happening is that for a fee you are permitted access to the resources (including lectures) of the college/school. But that's not a one way contract - you are accepting the authority of the college/school and it's agents and their rules. Typically that small print gives the lecturer rather a lot more power and discretion than you realize.

If the rules are really unreasonable (e.g. pretty girls/guys in front, stand all the time when there are seats, etc.) then you have two choices : dispute them in some legal way (e.g. contact the authorities or ultimately take legal action) or leave.

Now one of the most basic rules is that you pay attention. It's not complicated. It's nor strange. It's not an infringement on your human rights. It's an implicit (possibly explicit) part of your contract with the school. It's the only thing you are required to do at a lecture beyond those other common sense things of not disturbing other people, dressing, not eating, not drinking, not talking - and so on..

And, yes, it can disturb other people when you start using your phone to text or whatever.

OP just said they did put the phone down when the teacher asked

That's nice but the issue is the fact they should not have been using the phone in the first place. The OP doesn't get this or the question would not have been asked here.

I've explained the OP needs to contact the authorities via appropriate channels. That's all there is to it.

Many people seem upset by my post. Fine. They have a right to be upset if that's how they feel. If it's any consolation when I was a young student I also thought every rule, restriction and law was personally aimed at suppressing my rights. Maturity (experience) teaches you that it's not that black and white. Some rules are necessary.

Inconvenience is not the same as being deprived of a right.

I am happy to encourage people who disagree to say so, but if you want change remember three things :

  • I can't change things. You need to exercise normal legal political activity to try and get changes you want. In normal political activity you do not always get what you want. So contact your student unions, get a petition going, make a logical case to the authorities. But be prepared to not win, because that happens. Never start a battle you are not prepared to lose.

  • You can get more with a carrot and stick than you can with a stick. Make a logical case why using a phone would benefit the college and lecturer as well as the student and you'll get a lot further than talking about rights you don't actually have. That kind of approach will sound very naive to the authorities.

  • There are better battles for your energies that the right to fiddle with your phone during lectures. Put that youthful vigor into something more useful to the rest of the world, please.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Commented Nov 5, 2018 at 15:24
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    I don't understand why this response has gotten so many upvotes. I sincerely find it lacking in good arguments, and the OP seems to be more focused on coming off as some sort of edgy, all-knowing smartass, than actually trying to make a convincing argument.
    – SAK
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 19:38
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    @SAK I think Stephen gave a very clear picture of the situation and how to asses it. Judging from other comments you've made here and in other responses, it seems that you expected to jump into an echo chamber. That is not the case. And to answer to your edit, a rule system is necessary for every institution. Having rules and authorities in no way implies fascism.
    – EA304GT
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 15:36
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    I had a prof in the 80's who made students put newspapers away. He said it was rude to show such contempt for the lecture, whether it bothered any other students or not. I agreed with him and with this answer 100%. If you don't want to pay attention, why are you wasting classroom space?
    – B. Goddard
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 20:28
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    @SAK The arguments are very convincing if you've ever thought of things from a lecturers perspective. It is extremely off putting to have your audience start doing other things. I assume at some point you will have to (or already have) given a presentation. I've known people still feel uncomfortable with presentations after years of giving them. If you realise this then the "listen or leave" argument is rather convincing. Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 14:54

There is a dimension that you aren't considering. While it might be benign if one person does something, it might be less fine if everyone does it. Others might not be so good about turning off ringers, etc. Others might just decide to play games or chat with friends. It is hard to let this happen and also assure that it isn't disruptive.

The reason for the policy, I suspect, is that the instructor wants you to focus on what is going on in the class - exclusively. Even ten seconds away can cause you to miss something important.

But, I also suggest not getting into a fight with your professor ("handling teacher"). It isn't a fight worth having if you are so likely to lose it. Generally such rules, which may seem unreasonable to you, are put in place for valid educational reasons. There are tradeoffs, of course, but they usually favor paying attention.

There are other ways to be an effective learner that don't require electronics. They have been used for millennia.

I have written about effective classroom learning strategies that require only index cards and a pen/pencil at CS Educators as well as in other answers on this site.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 19:32
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    Yup, punish all for the selfish acts of some Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 21:59
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    @TomášZato: Slippery slope is not a fallacy always. For example, if you walk on the edge of a literal slippery slope, you're bound to roll down that slope...
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 15:04
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    @TomášZato: Less slippery slope, more categorical imperative. Many rules exist not because a single violation is problematic in and of itself, but because of the problems it would cause if everyone did it. Viewing your own actions through the lens of "what would society be like if everyone acted the same way" is useful; if it doesn't work when many people do it, saying it's okay for you to do it, but no one else, is fundamentally selfish. Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 2:31
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    Further, there's the fact that it's not fair to the class to allow one person to do something and then say others can't (which the original post implies by justifying it by being in the back of the room). For someone crying about injustice, that's a glaring hole.
    – Kaji
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 4:39

It is true: it is your business what you do with your phone. Up to this point: I had actually students talking into the phone while in class. Now it became the business of the other students. And thus, my business. After I had made it my business, you can be assured that talking on the phone in my class stopped for good.

Ok, you say you do not make noise while in class. Fair enough. Now, there is this proportion of students who play around silently with the phone and then, suddenly, they start asking questions about tests, exams, and other important issues which for which the detailed explanation has just been given. Clearly, their subconscious picked up the words of the lecturers, but not the detail for which conscious attention is required. That was absorbed by whatever they were doing on the phone. So, for the benefit of the students that prioritised their phone activity, and to the detriment and loss of time of the students who didn't, the lecturer has to explain the same things once more.

Note, the lecturer cannot just say: "pay attention instead of playing on the phone", because perhaps on that particular occasion, it would turn out that the accusation might be totally unfair to the student: in fact, something else might have absorbed the students' attention - their sick mother, having to move flats, or how not to get fired from their night-shift job. But, frankly, whenever a student asks about something that was explained just a minute ago (to be clear, not clarifications of a difficult concept, but the repetition of simple details) my first suspicion what caused this question for repetition would fall on their little "devil's prayerbook" that they consulted just under a minute ago.

I am not always convinced that, under the current zeitgeist, students, despite being lawfully adults, are fully mature. However, it is my view that if you treat people as adults, they usually will begin to behave like adults and, indeed, phone use seems to decline over the course of my classes. But not everyone has this patience: Therefore, I do not really blame other profs for wanting to stamp out this bad habit from the outset.

Because, all decent profs will have exactly one interest in class: to educate you as well as they can and know. And, if they believe that the phone disrupts your learning (and possibly that of your colleagues), the right response to that is to accept that they have the best intentions, and give them the benefit of the doubt that they know what they are asking for: and put the "devil's prayerbook" aside - there will be more than enough time for dark masses worshipping the interbeast after class.

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    I'm honestly not convinced anyone is fully mature by their age alone. I've seen forty-year-olds ignore each other and try to require me to repeat what the other said so they could "hear" it, and accuse me of disrespect when I wouldn't. I've known eight-year-olds to quickly and efficiently triage themselves if several are hurt and present the worst injuries for immediate attention. Age is an indicator of very little except how close you are to total organ failure, and even there it's unreliable.
    – anon
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 16:26
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    I would have upvoted, except for phrases like "devil's prayerbook" and "dark masses worshipping the interbeast". Even if they are meant to be funny (they aren't), they're just distracting from the topic and showing of technophobia, which doesn't make a good case for your answer being in good faith.
    – GreySage
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 16:55
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    @GreySage I use the internet a lot, and yes, I did have a slightly humorous, but also reflective intention here. The term "devil's prayerbook" had once been used for playing cards, and one of the issues is its distraction from other, more urgent/important things. The internet has de-evolved from being a neutral technological tool. Some of its actors now actively seek to absorb, not your soul, but your attention. Attention is currently a most valuable real estate - and the lecturer and the internet companies are competing for it. I think the analogy to the "devil" is not entirely unjustified. Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 20:37
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    @GreySage I am not sure technophobia is the right term. It insinuates that technology needs to somehow be protected from us backwardies who are challenging and threatening it. Well, you cannot know that I am a strongly technological person, and quite a few times amongst the first to use some new tools and gadgets. But I am also acutely aware of the lure of it. We should be masters of technology and not its slaves. And frankly, too many times, we (and I include myself), let ourselves be tempted to do things not because they make sense, expand our knowledge or move us forward, but because... Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 20:43
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    ...the technological possibilities shape what we end up aiming to do, even if there are simpler, and more effective ways to do it. It's almost like the tool determining what should be done rather than the other way round. Anyone that ever used a form that did not permit to enter the precise data that you would actually want to enter, but did not let you move forward without doing so will have experienced one particularly clumsy form of that. Or, when people struggle to format a graphics correctly where a few strokes on board/paper would be perfectly clear and sufficient for the task at hand. Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 20:48

Put your phone away (or leave the classroom), and speak to the professor afterwards if you're still unhappy.

Let's examine your reasons for thinking it's inappropriate:

First of all, and this may sound immature, but what I do with my phone is none of the teacher's business. As long as I am not disturbing anybody (audio is always off, I am never typing loudly because it's a touch-screen, and nobody is distracted by the screen because I make sure to sit in the back), it shouldn't be a problem.

Let's assume you are indeed right about all this and that you're not breaking any rules. In that case you have a right to pay attention to your phone instead of the professor. But that doesn't make it a wise thing to do. It's rude to not pay attention when someone is talking to you, and if you're looking at your phone you must expect your professor to notice. You'll regret what you did if someday you need a reference from him, you're looking for research supervision, or maybe even if you need a PhD/postdoc position. Academia is a small world, with a very long memory.

That's not all - teachers talk to one another, and another teacher's impression of you could be negatively impacted even before you start the class. This is especially the case if you end up in a formal dispute over whether it's your right to use your phone in class.

Secondly, I find that such demands can impede my learning. I often use the phone to look up information related to what the teacher is actually talking about. If a topic is mentioned that I don't quite recall, a quick google search or a 10-second glance at the topic's Wikipedia page brings me up to speed. Or perhaps the textbook for the course is on my cloud server and I need to the phone to actually access the book, if I didn't bring (or even buy) the physical copy.

However by using Google or looking at Wikipedia you don't actually pause the lecture. The professor will move on and you won't actually get up to speed, you'll be 10 seconds behind. Why not just raise your hand and ask the lecturer directly?

Finally, I find it highly disrespectful to call a student out for being on a phone in the middle of a lecture in front of all others. Such conversations, if they need to be had, should be had in private. Approach me after the lecture or during the break if you have a problem. Don't call me out in front of the entire class.

So speak to the professor in private after class and sort it out like adults. The parallels between the two of you are close. In both cases, one party has done something that the other party disapprove of. It's just the methods you use to solve the dispute are different. You don't approve of the professor's methods, so use your own method and talk to him in private.

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    +1 for the suggestions of alternatives. In addition to raising your hand, if you feel that you really need to use technology to solve your problem, why not just write it down and look it up later? I feel like an old fogey saying "that's the way I did it as an undergraduate" but I only finished my first undergrad 5 years ago!
    – user87850
    Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 12:09
  • Some comments deleted. Please keep the tone of all comments civil.
    – eykanal
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 4:03

There are many good answers, but I wanted to add a few points that I did not see elsewhere.

Personally, when I teach, I find it incredibly important to be able to judge how much of my class is following so I can change my pace to suit my student's needs. There are many ways I try to do this, but the best way I know how is to judge based on the faces of my students. If you are on your phone though, I cannot get a feeling for how well you are following. In this sense, your choice to be on your phone is actually making my job harder, so even if you aren't disturbing other students, you may be disturbing the teacher and their ability to get instant feedback from you.

Also, I try hard to promote an atmosphere in which students ask questions, as this is helpful not just for them, but also for other students who may not have even noticed they don't understand. The more students who vocalize their questions, the more benefit to all students. Thus, if you chose to remove yourself from this process by asking questions to google rather than me, you are degrading the learning environment I am trying to create, which hurts other students.

Also, you suggest that a professor should approach you after class or during a break, but in my experience, that isn't feasible. When I call a break in my class, I don't actually get a break, instead students usually immediately approach me to ask individual questions. If I do get a second to breathe, I sure don't want to spend that time running to the back of the room to have a conversation with you about how your phone use isn't conducive to the learning atmosphere I am promoting. Similarly with the end of the class, that is when I hold office hours, so I do not have a chance to go chase you down (especially since you sit in back!!) when I have ten students who want to talk to me about this or that. My only option there would be to call you out and ask you to stay after class, which in my opinion is much worse than a quick comment asking you to get off your phone.

I cannot say if your professor has similar reasons for not letting you use your phone, but there are many reasons why it is indeed an appropriate request. So, to answer your question, as others have advised, you should respect your teachers wishes, and if you wish you can approach the professor after class (a good teacher will give you time to approach them either immediately after class or in office hours, so this is not unreasonable, unlike you expecting a professor to approach you after class). Don't be surprised though if you do not get your professor to budge on the issue. If you feel dissatisfied my your conversation with the professor, you can look into organizations at your institution that allows you to report grievences, but again don't be surprised if this also does not go your way.

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    +1 for the point that mobiles make students and their feedback needs harder to read for the lecturer. The second point about responding to the expectation of being told off after class is slightly too accommodating for my taste (do I really want to burden my mind with remembering who in the 2nd row from the last utilised his phone?), but on the whole a good answer. Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 12:10
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    I will add, having taught a little (not college level) that it just sucks on a person level when you're putting time and energy into it and being ignored. It feels almost like trying to have a conversation with someone who's making a point of ignoring you. I know it isn't the same thing, but it does feel similarly crappy.
    – johncip
    Commented Nov 5, 2018 at 10:54
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    +1 … forget etiquette and tact, it is so incredibly distracting if your interlocutors are visibly not listening. It takes a lot of training as a teacher to ignore this and not be thrown off by it. Commented Nov 5, 2018 at 14:15
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    @KonradRudolph Good point. I am toughened up to various behaviours by my audience, but I once had a student who always had a bored and unmotivated look. He actually listened (as you would find out when you asked questions), but it was totally unnerving to get this misleading feedback signal. Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 6:57

If you believe your use is completely legitimate (I'll give an example), briefly state your purpose to the lecturer when asked and be prepared to put away the phone anyway.

Once, in grad school I had a professor tell me to not use my phone in class. I'm hard of hearing and typically record the lectures on a voice recorder or my phone. If I recall correctly I had to interrupt or start the recording on my phone in the middle of the class when the professor spoke to me. I never use my phone in class otherwise, and typically prefer a voice recorder as its purpose is more obvious.

I said something like "Sorry, I'm hard of hearing and I had to turn on my audio recorder." The professor was gracious and might have been a bit embarrassed. There was no problem from that point forward. In fact I've recommended the class and professor to many people since.

If your purpose isn't so obviously valid (e.g., playing a game, etc.) then I'd just put the phone away. In my example, the purpose of using the phone was to better understand the lecturer and minimize disruptions to the class from me asking to repeat things I did not hear well enough, not distract myself.

There are many other reasons which few would argue against, like expecting an important phone call or message.

If you intend to regularly use your phone for legitimate reasons, it would be best to talk with the professor before class time about this to make sure there are no misunderstandings. Asking for permission also appears to be required to record lectures in at least some universities.

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    Frankly, when asking someone to put away a phone, the prof doesn't care why the student is using the phone, and isn't interested in having an argument. Your case, requesting an accommodation, is a valid exception, but not one that carries useful advice for the situation described by the question. In fact, a better approach for your situation would be to contact the prof in advance to say you'll be using the phone as a recorder -- you could have saved the prof some embarrassment. Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 13:03
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    @ScottSeidman true, but again who can guess that the prof hate phones? This is a problem of ignorance; no-one is actual faulty; we just learn by error.
    – Ooker
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 13:57
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    @Ooker I think if you want to record lectures, it is standard courtesy to clear this with the professor at the beginning of the term, whether you are using a phone or not.
    – Kimball
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 22:58
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    @Ooker I just know that in my personal experience when a student has some disability that requires something like recording lectures or having a note-taker come, I've been asked for permission beforehand. And I think most people would be unhappy to find out they're being recorded without permission. But maybe this would be a good question for this site?
    – Kimball
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 3:24
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    I just checked, and my university's policy is to get permission from the instructor before recording. diversity.utexas.edu/disability/accommodations-and-services I had assumed since it was perfectly legal that this was okay. Texas is a one party consent state and I don't think there's an expectation of privacy in a classroom. While I probably won't be taking any classes here in the future, I'll keep this in mind. Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 4:20

Excuse yourself to go out into the hall to use your phone.

  • Amazing insight. So when I was on my phone and wasn't disturbing anybody, that was a problem, and the solution to that problem is to HALT the lecture, tell me to leave, wait for me to leave, then HALT the lecture again and I come back in and walk to my spot. Amazing!
    – SAK
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 19:51
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    SAK Do your professors stop the class whenever someone needs to go to the bathroom? In my experience they don't, you can just excuse yourself and leave.
    – Anon
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 20:11
  • @SAK you may of course have a right to disagree with it, and that's natural. But being sarcasm is not. Frankly, before this I didn't understand why other people told you to be immature, because I saw your problem was legit. But now you just give me a reason.
    – Ooker
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 5:38
  • @SAK I do not know about you, but once I started undergraduate classes, students have left classes in the middle for various reasons, never once asking the professor permission to leave or interrupting the lecture - you just walk out, go to the bathroom or whatever you need to do, then come back in and hopefully you can get notes from someone else for what you missed.
    – Stephen S
    Commented May 13, 2019 at 14:30

The problem with phones is that their primary purpose is to be a phone. I imagine that the professor would not mind if you had a laptop on the desk, s/he would assume you were taking notes.

However the suspicion that you might be using a phone for texting and social media would be very irritating to any teacher however and probably also to students sitting near by. If one person was allowed to do it then so would everyone else and chaos would ensue.


If you have a laptop but no access to wifi then you could set up your phone as a wifi hotspot, then put it in your pocket. Connect the laptop and silence any alerts on both devices. You can then google to your heart's content and others will assume you are note-taking.

P.S. Of course check that laptops are allowed before doing this!


Disclaimer: I'm 48 years old and have a B.S. degree in Mathematics, so I've got a bit of detachment from this.

This reminds me of a friend of mine who is currently a freshman at a state university. He took calculus his last two years in high school, and assumed that those credits would transfer to the university. They didn't, and the university put him in their first year calculus course.

I asked him a few weeks ago how his classes were going, especially his math class (since that's my degree). He said that he sits in the back of the room and plays games on his cell phone because he's seen all of the material before.

What should I tell him? Drop the class and come over my house a couple of afternoons a week for a math lecture? (I didn't say that.)

Contrast this with my first sixth grade math teacher, who had me out of her class and reassigned to the Algebra I class within about two weeks because she realized that I was in the wrong class.

Conclusion: my sixth grade math teacher was more competent that Dr. Whosit at State U.

Based on my experience during my own undergraduate time, there may (or may not) be very little point in complaining about it.

The big up-voted answer lectures us a lot about maturity and responsibility. In one sense, I agree with it. If I had known then what I know now, and had the maturity at 18 that I have at 48, I would have... dropped out of university after my first year and lived homeless on the streets while pursuing my academic studies.


That's a lot of maturity to expect from an 18-year-old. I didn't have it, and it's unreasonable to expect that many people do.

Instead, the adults with terminal degrees who run our schools should do a better job at their profession than what my friend is experiencing. Not sure just what situation OP is in, but there's a lot of people who use "the rules" to cover up for their own incompetence.

Update: (after 4 up votes and 7 comments) @Ben Voight has rightly criticized me for not answering OP's question, so let me try to address the question directly:

It's very hard to respect people who insist that they're experienced teachers, that they've been placed in positions of authority, that you should obey the rules or leave, but when called out on something as basic as placing a student on an appropriate curricular track, whine about all their rules and regulations and how, despite all their tenure and shared governance, there's just nothing they can do about it.

Respect them anyway, or at least act like you do. It's the most mature course of action.

Keep text messages brief, like, "I'm in class right now. I'll call you back later." Don't play games. There's no reason not to use your phone to look up material related to the class. If the teacher says something, and you're really just goofing off, say "sorry", and put it away. Otherwise, if you think you have a good reason to be using the phone, explain why. If it looks like it's turning into an argument in front of the whole class, try to defuse it with "can we discuss this after class, please". Don't turn it into an argument about rights. Back down for the sake of the entire class.

The key is to act like you really want to be in their lecture.

If it's so bad that you just can't stand the act, then you really should leave. The consequences may be severe. Most of my professors would knock off a letter grade, minimum, if you didn't show up to their lectures, even if you could recite everything in their class. Don't bother complaining to the school's administration - it's pointless. Instead, go talk to the individual professors during their office hours. Try to explain, calmly and rationally, why you're bored by the lectures, or you'd rather study the material out of the textbook, or whatever problem you have with the structure of the class. The best teachers understand what educators call "learning styles" and will work with you. The lousy ones won't.

Finally, realize that people who whine about their rights and people who bark orders to "do what you're told or get the hell out" are both immature. A lot of maturity is expressed by voluntarily sacrificing your rights to smooth interpersonal relationships, by standing up for important causes, and by knowing when to do each. When in doubt, favor conciliation over conflict, and dialog over silence.

  • 13
    FYI, typically it is not the professor who decides what classes students are in. Also, many students who've had calculus at high school don't actually know many of the things taught in university calculus (see also Dunning-Kruger).
    – Kimball
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 23:04
  • 8
    The faculty member usually cannot do anything here; universities have very strict registration rules that you have to move heaven and earth to violate. Dr. Whosit also may have a few hundred people in class and not even know your friend. In my experience, once you hit the 40-student mark, it's very hard to know every student well enough to suss out this kind of thing - and if your friend isn't complaining and the teacher has a 4/4 load, that would make it even harder. I (seriously) suggest your friend ask for a few challenges, like solving the brachistochrone problem :) or serving as a tutor.
    – kcrisman
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 1:41
  • 3
    I'm not saying university systems are perfect, and I agree we should improve placement systems, but the situation is very different from elementary school. For one, we have thousands of students coming in each year with widely different backgrounds, and we don't have the resources to carefully evaluate them individually in the beginning of the semester.
    – Kimball
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 2:54
  • 3
    The recent (3 hours ago from my present time) update to the answer and some of the comments are completely overlooking certain points raised in other comments. In fact, the professor/teacher might have been told by a course supervisor (or department chair, or someone else in higher authority over the particular class) that the department policy (or "calculus 2 policy", or whatever) is that cell phones are to always be put away in class. There's also the impact the use by one person has with others in the class, who may not know what the student is doing and (continued) Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 8:55
  • 3
    thinks the student is playing games, so some of the other students will think it's OK to play games. This is definitely something teachers think about regarding establishing classroom policies, by the way. Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 8:57

The most upvoted answer has the core of the answer right. The rules are set up by the university, including the rule that says that it's the professor's job to set whatever rules in their class, as long as they are not against higher level rules. Also, if you want to go further, the university has been granted the authority to set these rules by the state, which has been granted authority by the people, which mostly mean your parents, and grandparents, and to a lesser degree you.

Now most people here, including the author of the most upvoted answer here, think that since there's such a long chain of authority, and plenty of experience, the professor also has the right of your respect and obedience.

Firstly, respect can only be earned. Whenever I hear someone asking for respect, they lose a bit of my respect to them. They might not care, then they lose even more respect from me.

Secondly, while nobody has the right to anyone's obedience, professors, due to their long chain of command, which literally leads to your parents, do have the tools to enforce obedience if they wish to.

How to handle such an enforcement really depends on the situation. Maybe the professor is actually happy if they find out that you're extending your knowledge. In this case, simply asking a question after class, in a polite way, might make the professor see your way, and maybe even apologize for their previous behavior. Going to the other extreme, they might propose for you to be expelled, at first sight of a phone in your hand, without you even having the possibility to explain anything. This means that the best course of action depends highly both on the actual context, and on your perceived advantages for challenging the authority. Since you only exposed a theoretical general case, there can't be any optimal solution.

I understand how the above is mostly a non-answer, so I want to extend my answer with a personal anecdote, which perfectly exemplifies the situation.

During my bachelor I was in the exact same situation. More specifically, I hated taking notes, as it distracted me from paying attention to what the lecturer was saying. Maybe it's me, but when I'm writing something I can't also process the information that I receive. The lecturer on the other hand, had this rule that everyone has to write everything he was saying. He was pretty much dictating stuff and we were supposed to write it, as if we were second graders learning to write. Some might say that this situation is different, because dictating to students is stupid, while not allowing phones in class is different. Nevertheless, they are both arbitrary rules, set by the professor, which has the power from... from... from... and also the tools to enforce them (see the above part of the answer).

I decided to challenge the rule and simply not write anything. I was just sitting silently and listening to what he was saying. Similarly to what you described, I was not disturbing anyone. It was obvious that I was the only student not writing, so the professor called me out for it. I politely explained my reasoning and the professor replied me with his rule, which needs to be obeyed, as everyone does. I politely declined to obey, and he dropped it for that class. It was a small win. Similar exchanges happened a few more times, but the new ones had mockery added to my address. I always remained polite. This professor was also the dean. Long story short, I did 5 years of bachelor instead of the regular 4. Although to be honest, this was not the only rule that I challenged in that university. I did earn the respect of some of my colleagues, and even of some professors, maybe I even changed some things for the university, but I literally lost one year of my life. I do not regret my choices, but my colleagues who agreed with my thinking, and chose to act differently, also don't regret their choices either.

Finally, you are asking for respect from the professor. I really meant everything I wrote above.

  • 13
    Rather than referring to "the most-upvoted answer" (which can change over time), you may want to link to the specific answer or at least mention the display name of the author of that answer.
    – user8283
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 6:04
  • 2
    How does one loose respect? Can you tight respect?
    – johncip
    Commented Nov 5, 2018 at 10:55
  • @anonymous Complicated is just something one doesn't understand well, but I don't see how this fits as a comment to my answer. Everyone is within their bounds to do whatever they can do, and I clearly said in my answer that professors do have the tools to enforce a lot of things in their classrooms, one of them being no phones whatsoever. You pretty much repeated a summary of my answer in an adversarial tone.
    – Andrei
    Commented Nov 5, 2018 at 22:21

I think you need to reconsider your position as a student.

In the US, every course will have a syllabus, which will serve as a contract between students and the instructor. In most other countries, there is something similar. You'd take it or leave it: it is your right to take the course at the given time or not, and it is the right of the instructor to set up some reasonable house rules. "Don't use your phone" is certainly one of them. You have a right to use your phone, but you likely forfeited it temporarily per course or school policy.

Now, if neither your instructor nor your school said you shouldn't use your phone in class, this would be more debatable, but still not to the point where you have a good case. This is not a pub, but a classroom: you are there to learn, as your instructor is there to help you learn. Being on the phone doing stuff is likely not going to help you learn, and would thus be disrespectful to the instructor.

Personally, if it were a large course, I wouldn't care much unless the student is actually being disruptive: it's their tuition and their education, and I could hardly do anything if they decide not to learn.

  • 1
    A syllabus is not a contract. Although this is a popular myth/metaphor. Instructors can and do change them without consultation or prior approval. Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 0:41
  • @DanielR.Collins It is indeed not a legally-binding contract, but IMO instructors and students ought to think of it as a contract as everyone is a grown-up here.
    – xuq01
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 0:44
  • I would argue that as grown-ups, (a) everyone should be aware of what is and is not a real contract, and (b) not need fake contracts to establish reasonable/professional behavior. Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 3:02
  • @DanielR.Collins I need to respectfully disagree, or perhaps we have different concepts of "contracts": social etiquette is essentially a non-binding contract (nothing really stops you from breaching them, yet most people do honor and expect others to honor them). I would say that a syllabus is pretty much "class etiquette": as different instructors and students have differing expectations of classroom etiquette, it's necessary to write them down. Perhaps we should bring this to chat, though.
    – xuq01
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 3:16
  • 1
    It's typically a contract similar in nature to an EULA—you either implicitly accept its terms by accepting the service or reject it by withdrawing.
    – Kaji
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 4:50

So here's my take on this: Using a phone gives the impression that you're distracted. If I'm teaching, and I see students on their phones, I would tend to feel that I'm being ignored or not delivering the message I want to deliver. Some instructors will feel very disrespected by this; others may simply ignore it and continue lecturing.

If you have a valid reason, briefly tell the instructor that you're using it to look up relevant topics, read the book, or otherwise. If the instructor continues to object, put away the phone and discuss the issue in more detail at the end of the lecture. Don't argue it beyond this point during the class.

The tone of the question as written makes it look like you feel entitled to certain rights. While I recognize that you feel invaded, bear in mind that you're in a classroom setting and the instructor generally expects students to be at least minimally respectful and paying attention. Also, there are other students in the classroom, and your actions may set a bad example for others, even if unintentionally and inadvertently, and cause your peers to become distracted during the lecture. Ultimately, my recommendation is to be honest and transparent about what you're doing so the lecturer understands and can help you learn best.


I'm commenting enough I might as well start porting some of it into an answer...

You probably have little footing to argue on, and this may be a very steep uphill battle that is not worth having because of the high chance of losing, but there is some hope.

Someone else wrote in comment that teachers must follow the code just like police cannot decide who to charge and must follow the law and movie theater workers must enforce the code at the theater.

... except that statement is wrong.

Police can, and they do, decide when and where to enforce the law. They do it every day. It is very common for police to stop a driver for some traffic violation and to either a reduced ticket (for a completely different violation, one which is less severe) or to issue no ticket at all.

Once I even watched a judge tell someone off (not me) for coming in to argue against a ticket that the judge believed was already a reduced ticket. The judge himself said that police do this all the time, that the ticket this defendant had was a type that police never actually give except as a reduction for some other worse violation, and that the defendant should just be happy that he doesn't have the ticket for whatever he actually did.

Likewise, in the classroom the teacher is the enforcer. The teacher has the authority to enforce the rules. The teacher usually has the authority to tell you to put your phone away. They could choose not to, even if the school's code of conduct says "thou shalt not use a phone in class."

When I taught, it was at a place where attendance was mandatory. But I knew that there were some people in the class that already knew the material. So I told them to feel free to skip if they already knew it, and I provided them with a practice test to judge whether they were prepared for the test or if they needed to come to class.

I also provided a "test-out" test the first week of class. I told people they could take a test that was similar to the final, and if they liked their grade they could just accept that for the class and not show up any more. They loved it, especially the ones who got an A, and it meant I did not waste their time and less of my time was wasted as well. Technically, this was against the attendance policy. But it was still the right thing to do.

The rules are there for a reason. They are there to increase some beneficial quality, such as order, peace, or - in the case of school - average grade. When the rules actually cause things to be worse instead of better, then following the rules is actually the problem and the rules are counter to their own reason for existing - this is usually not the case as long as the rules are good, but this does sometimes happen. The phone in the back row in the classroom is in between these two extremes. Using your phone in a non-distracting manner does not cause any real problems, and avoiding using it instead does not really provide any benefit (omitting the potential benefit or drawback to you, as only you can judge that). So this is a neutral case.

If following a rule in some specific case does no good nor bad, then enforcing it just makes the enforcer look like a jerk. And that might be the case - that is debatable. Unfortunately for you, the enforcer still has the authority to do that even if it could be considered an abuse. It is essentially the "might makes right" attitude, as authority is a form of might.

In your specific argument, where you use it for class, as a tool to augment your learning, you have an excellent argument. If this is actually a very common thing and is the only way for you to access the class textbook in class, then and probably only then would this be a good battle to fight, if you think that it is worth it and that you could succeed in that narrow case. Even then, the fight will probably apply only to that class, and the instant you are noticed doing anything else that fought-for right may be revoked. You may have to have similar fights for each class, though each time you succeed you set a precedent.

For anything else other than the class assigned textbook, this is not as likely to succeed even if the use is to augment class. Unfortunately, if you are looking up a term on Wikipedia, someone can (and likely will) argue against you that you should just write down that term in your notes and look it up after class. I am not saying that is how it should be, but that is a likely counter argument.


It's a grey area. From the social norms, "the correct response" is to put the phone away, then find a solution later.

Even if you are not distracting anyone, and even if you are adding to your learning, those are not sufficient to justify your use of the phone. The society is not a math optimization problems, as the constraints of interpersonal relationships and traditions are too great. Otherwise you can make the case that you can cross the road on red light any time there are no vehicles in sight. It sounds logical, but you can't make this argument in front of a judge. Anything that has to do with policy, with multiple people involved, is very time- and energy-consuming, and sometimes the best solution is not the most nuanced.

Even, say, if you aren't distracting anyone, the professor has to always keep in mind, when seeing you, that you aren't distracting anyone. So it's a slight cognitive burden on the professor --- who clearly is distracted. And why should your greater learning take away from the other students', as now professor is 1% more distracted, thanks to you?

More to the point, as others said, stop making excuses. If you did not bring the textbook and need to access it in the cloud, is it the professor's fault that you can't? Or is it your fault that you did not bring the textbook? If you forgot some topic and need to look it up, again, whose fault is it that you are unprepared? Countless research shows that successful people are the ones taking responsibility for their actions and their lives, while unsuccessful people spend their time on this planet complaining and whining and blaming everyone around them for their problems.

The complexity of interpersonal relationships is so great that tens of thousands of smart and trained people around the world struggle to codify the most obvious examples as laws: what is a crime, what exactly is a theft, what exactly is a rape, what exactly is being intentional vs. negligent. Your situation belongs to the range of opinion/tradition, as it is far from clear-cut notions. If you really feel you need this access during the class, I suggest you (1) study really hard to make it clear that you are not just some complaining loser. This would go a long way. Then (2) talk to the professor, and/or (3) find another device, such as a tablet, that is less distracting.

Personally, I just think you are wrong, as in my experience, simply moving your eyes down to the phone and immediately back to the blackboard could affect your ability to pay attention, probably for the next minute or so. You are likely clueless about how learning and attention actually work (though the professor may be equally clueless) to be making the case that it doesn't distract you or the professor or anyone.


The answers have been given already, it is disturbing for the teacher to see a student busy with something else than listening and paying full attention to what the teacher is teaching, in the teacher's point of view. It is purely manners. A few teachers might find it not a big deal a student is googling up something about the lecture right away during class, but see that as a given right, not a freedom.

And to zoom in on your first reasoning:

What if other students (that are NOT in the back rows) that getting pointed at as well in front of other students (about being busy on their phones) are complaining about you doing the same (while sitting at the last row in the back)?

When something is about to get unfair, younger people get annoyingly childish (no pun), and want the same rights and treatments as others. In the end, the whole lecture or even semester or year might be a disappointment with all those disruptive discussions about paying attention. Especially for students that actually like to listen with full attention!

Though I do understand your interest and way to look things up by the Internet, but that's just an impulsive action. Please have a respectful chat with your teacher about this subject.

On the contrary:

It is becoming a part of the lectures in some areas... I know of a few primary schools that educate mainly with use of tablets. Digital boards and pc's are more common in some lectures, ofcourse. But even then, I can't think of students not listening when the teacher is talking and demonstrating....

Just think about the teacher's point of view, if you will.

  • 2
    Think about the student's point of view. Not everyone in that room is on equal footing. For some, the lecture is too slow, perhaps review. I've been in a PoliSci class in which a fair amount the material overlapped with statistics classes that I already took. Luckily, my professor wasn't so self-absorbed, and allowed me some leniency in doing other, non-disruptive tasks while the lecture caught up to my knowledge.
    – Clay07g
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 19:25
  • 1
    @Clay07g, true. But still, have a good chat on that with the teacher to get on the same page. He or she should recognize that as well, as your professor did, luckily indeed. But that is a personal case, and that is up to the teacher to do something with. As it does not say the rest of the class is also way ahead on the current lectures. It's not a private lecture.
    – Michael
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 19:34

As long as you aren't in violation of other academic expectations, then yes, you're probably fine. Note that there are a lot of standards, particularly not impeding others, that need to be complied with; however, if you are in compliance with everything, then the professor is out of line.

To resolve the issue? If you wish, you may speak with the professor after class about this, but be prepared for a tough time convincing the professor of your intentions. Even if you are polite and courteous, some professors won't be receptive to your argument. Most teachers dislike when students have phones out for any reason, simply because some students abuse their phones. I'd recommend putting the phone away discreetly, then talking to the prof after if the use of the cell phone for your education is important enough to you. By directly defying the professor, you risk alienating them to your plight (if they took the time to ask you to put it away, they probably wouldn't like to have the discussion right then and there.

  • 7
    Within the limits of appropriateness, a professor can manage a teaching environment any way they see fit; asking a student to put away their phone will never be out of line because, like it or not, it's not an inappropriate request.
    – Dancrumb
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 17:28
  • 3
    @Dancrumb I've actually been in a situation in which a teacher calling out some random student was more disruptive to my experience in the class than whatever the student was actually doing. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with a teacher asking a student to put away their phone, but it can most certainly be an inappropriate request, depending on the context.
    – Clay07g
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 19:31
  • 1
    @Clay07g: definitely - calling out a student can be done in an inappropriate way and I would not defend that. I probably over-stated things with "never" :)
    – Dancrumb
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 14:20
  • 2
    If anyone is sitting in the same row as me holding a light and waving their hands about that is a distraction to me. The OP's premise and your confirmation that this does not impede other's concentration is false. Commented Nov 5, 2018 at 15:32
  • @PeteKirkham This answer is based on that assumption, not on a confirmation. I'm assuming that it isn't a distraction. Otherwise, obviously you're right.
    – user45266
    Commented Nov 5, 2018 at 15:54

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