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Is it OK to prevent students from using their cellphones during the lecture by stating that in the syllabus?

and how to deal with students who insist on using their cellphones during the lecture?

(Most of what they do is either to text message or to browse the internet. Often I see those who are used to use the cellphones during the lecture smiling or showing something on the phone to the person next to them which might start a side chat. Is that OK to ignore?)

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    Ask them to finish the lecture - if they aren't paying attention, it must be because they know the material, hence can give the lecture :-) – darthbith Oct 30 '14 at 18:22
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    Is there a reason why you don't want them to use their phones? For me it really doesn't matter what they do as long as they are not disturbing anyone. Some people learn faster and, even if your speed is fine for most students there usually are same faster and same slower students. In addition, as long as they are not disturbing anyone they are only wasting their own time. – The Almighty Bob Oct 30 '14 at 20:17
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    I second @TheAlmightyBob comment: let them using the cell phone as long as these are kept silent. In the good ol' days when cell phones had not yet populated the earth, students used to distract themselves during the lessons with games like Tic-Tac-Toe, Connect Four or by reading books and comics. So, what's the difference with cell phones? If, instead, a cell phone starts to ring, I firstly give a warning; then, if it happens again, I ask the student to leave the room. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 30 '14 at 20:54
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    I have a syllabus rule against "gear" that makes noise. Anyone who wants to quietly ignore me is welcome to do that. They're grownups; let them make their own decisions to flunk out. – Bob Brown Oct 30 '14 at 22:11
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    Modern cellphones are pretty good ebook readers. Students can use cellphones to read course material. – Jukka Suomela Oct 30 '14 at 22:52
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What is the best policy to deal with students using their cellphones inside the class?

In my opinion: Just ignore them. As long as they are not disturbing the class I don't see a point in doing anything.

There are many different reasons for using a mobile phone during class, maybe they have to check something you said in the course material, maybe they just want to check their time or maybe their learning speed is faster than your teaching speed.

What you are trying to fight here seem to be two things:

  1. The students are distracted by their phones.
  2. The students are distracting someone else by talking to them.

The first thing is, in my opinion, not your problem. They are old enough to decide for themselves if they want to pay attention or not. You are providing them with the opportunity to learn something and if they take advantage of it is up to them.

The second point is (again, only my opinion) a valid point. However, I think you have the wrong approach here. You can't possibly know if banning mobile phones achieves that goal. The reason for using mobile phones is, most of the time, boredom (for whatever reason) and if not allowed to distract them with their phone they might try to distract them by talking with their neighbor. Therefore, a ban of mobile phones might be the cause for more side chats. If you want to reduce these chats maybe you should try it more directly.

Is it OK to prevent students from using their cellphones during the lecture by stating that in the syllabus?

The question should be: Is it OK to try to prevent students from using their cellphones. Here you have (as already said by @Nicholas) a problem of enforceability. Students are still going to use mobile phones (most of them (including me ;-)) don't even have a watch anymore) and then you have the problem that it will be hard to enforce your rule.

Again, I think you are trying to fight two things with your mobile ban: Distraction for themselves (which is, in my opinion) non of your business (and most students would just switch to something else to distract them) and distraction of others by talking to their neighbors.

If you want to fight the second point you should, in my opinion, try to enforce this directly, e.g. by asking them if they have a question (or, if it happened more often, to tell them to shut up or, in the worst case, just kicking them out) or, as @Nicholas suggested, ask them an easy question. Personally, I think it is impossible to distinguish if they are discussing something relevant to the course (which, in my opinion, is great and should not be banned) and irrelevant chats which are a (minor) distraction and should be banned, therefore I tend to ask if there is a question.

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One of my high school math teachers used to make us leave backpacks, phones, even calculators in the front of the classroom during his lecture. This allowed us to spend less time on lectures, but with more dialogue, and gave all of us a feel for how to help each other. Sure, some of us were smarter than others, but when smart students got bored they could raise their hands and ask tougher questions, and when students fell behind, other students who were closer to the same level could offer their own explanations. That wouldn't have been possible if we'd had access to cell phones or even search engines, and it allowed him to more effectively pace his lecture according to class needs.

I don't think there's a universal answer to this question - it's like asking for a 'best' chess opening . . . but a few things to keep in mind:

  • Cell phones don't just hurt attention span, they hurt class feedback, causing not only a clueless student, but a professor who is largely clueless about 'why' the student is clueless.
  • People with phones don't have any idea how distracted they are. Not remotely. Even people who know will repeatedly underestimate the problem.
  • The same students who complain about your anti-phone rules during the first week of class will blame you for their lack of understanding during the last week of class.
  • Students who are smart enough to get bored of the lecture are often capable of identifying the needs of other students and helping to move the class forward - unless preoccupied by cell phones.

And on the flip side, a student who is determined to use a cell phone but isn't allowed to use it will invest extra focus in hiding the activity. At that level of determination though, I'd have to agree with Almighty Bob's assessment that the student really does deserve to fall behind.

Good luck!

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    University is not high school. Students will not behave like adults until they are treated like adults. You may be able to force some knowledge in the class, but that will not magically permeate at home, where they are supposed to study. – Davidmh Oct 31 '14 at 19:45
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    Regardless of student age, a professor owes his students an honest opinion about what strategies will get them through the class. If the professor holds the opinion that cell phones will prevent the students from understanding the material, he needs to make that clear. I didn't say he had to treat them like children or punish them, I said he needs to keep four listed points in mind, and I don't think your comment specifically rebuts any of them. – user3765080 Oct 31 '14 at 19:55
  • Stating that playing with the phone in class is fine, it is yet another thing you want to teach them. Force it is completely different; and in my opinion, hopeless. – Davidmh Nov 1 '14 at 19:23
  • You can't help other people during a lecture, or at least not the lectures I had. You just copied the stuff off the blackboard and did your best to listen to the explanations. – Calchas Jun 28 '15 at 12:14
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By stating that you forbid students from using their cellphones in a lecture in a formal manner, you are making a rod for your own back. Some (many? most?) students will continue to use their cellphones during your lecture. Unless you draw attention to this when it happens, students may feel that the rules you have specified in your syllabus are, instead, suggestions, and some of the other rules may similarly be broken.

If your goal is to increase attention, there are other techniques. For instance, make it a habit to engage with the class by asking (easy) questions. Direct one of these at a habitual cellphone user. Even if the user is fiddling with his/her phone at the time, wait until the silence in the class becomes more engaging than facebook/twitter/email. He/she looks up. You have an enquiring face. What's the answer? Don't know. Oh. Anyone else? Point made. Move on.

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    I often dim the lights so they are easier to spot and thus shame. – Tommy B Oct 30 '14 at 22:04
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Regarding the use of cellphones in class-if I were an instructor, I would make it clear on the first day of class that they don't need to be on cell phones during the class. It can distract others, plus it shows disrespect for the learning environment and the teacher. Stating the issue of cell phones during the lecture by stating that in the syllabus is an excellent approach and needs to be enforced!

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    You said "needs to be enforced". But, the OP is asking how to deal with students who do not comply. – scaaahu Jun 28 '15 at 8:13
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One of my colleagues says that any student found using a phone during class will have their final course graded lowered by two letter grades. While that seems draconian to me, one of my students says NO ONE has a phone out during his classes. Don't know if he has ever had to enforce it, but the threat seems to work.

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    I'd like to see that hold up in a grade grievance -- – ewormuth Aug 18 '15 at 18:56
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(am not a professor, but am well versed in common sense) My approach would be along these lines:

As long as such activities are not impeding the ability of other students to learn, I would ignore students who are focused on their phones. It is completely within their rights to choose to ignore a lecture, or material that may help them pass a course.

If, however, said phone activity is causing disruption I would ask the student to either put the phone away, or finish the activity elsewhere.

You cannot save everyone, best to focus on those who clearly want to be there.

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