Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Ask the Administrator: Texting and Teaching

I suspect this one isn’t unique. A new correspondent writes:

I teach at a community college and find that many of my students text in the classroom. My policy, which is stated on my syllabus, is that I ask students who use the phone to leave the class for the day. This doesn't seem to discourage cell phone use. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

A few thoughts, before I open the floor to my wise and worldly readers, many of whom have been in the classroom more recently than I have.

First, it’s great that you have a policy stated in your syllabus. From this side of the desk, it’s easy to stand behind a professor who sticks to the rules she set out in the first place. My nightmare is the professor who changes the rules midstream or applies them with obvious selectivity. A blanket ban is clear, easy to describe and defend, and obviously well-suited to a smallish class.

That said, sometimes there’s a gap between what’s clean on paper and what works in class.

One issue may be clarity. Those of us of a certain age -- sigh -- may think of ‘texting’ as included in the phrase ‘cell phone use,’ but some youngish students may see the two categories as separate. To them, ‘cell phone use’ may imply voice calls or web surfing, whereas texting is texting. They may think of texting as a less intrusive alternative to calling. If that’s all it is, then a little clarification may help. (And just having a policy on a syllabus usually won’t cut it, since students tend not to read syllabi. Make sure you announce in class the parts you want to emphasize.)

If clarity isn’t the issue -- that is, if they know perfectly well that you don’t want them texting but they keep doing it anyway -- then things get trickier.

It’s tempting to try to channel John Houseman’s character from The Paper Chase, but outside of a few select settings, that’s just not realistic anymore. And given cell phone ubiquity, student solidarity, and the reality of limited political capital, adopting a hard line position may wind up being more trouble than it’s worth.

Instead, I’d recommend thinking through what you’re trying to achieve with the ban, and then sharing your thoughts with the class. Presumably, most of us would be okay with exceptions based on childcare or medical emergencies, and it’s increasingly true that students often have such complicated lives that just trying to define “emergency” can become neverending. But it’s also true that it’s hard to have thoughtful class discussions when half the class is distracted by little screens in their hands. (In our house, we have a “no technology at the table” rule during meals. We’re not Luddites by any stretch -- regular readers know that I enjoy my gadgets -- but family mealtime is human contact time.)

I’d recommend sharing your concerns with the class, and moving from “police” mode to “problem solving” mode. If it’s you against them, I don’t like your chances. I won’t go all Cathy Davidson on you and suggest incorporating texting into the class, but incorporating the students into the class as adults, rather than treating them as recalcitrant children, may get you about 80 percent of what you actually want. Share with them what you envision a great class looking like, and let them know you think they’re capable of achieving that, but you’re concerned that they won’t get there if they aren’t looking. See what they have to say about it. Best case, you avoid the “police state” atmosphere that can easily poison the class dynamic, and actually improve the class climate through some thoughtful reflection on what you -- and they -- are really trying to achieve.

Good luck! I know you’re not alone in this.

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those currently teaching -- what would you suggest? Is there a more effective way?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I'd also want to make sure you're sure of what you're defining as "texting." As more and more of students' lives can be contained on their phones, it's sometimes (but certainly not always) true that students who might appear to be texting are actually entering the homework into their calendars, or using the Internet to look up a concept the class is discussing.

Personally, I usually let texting slide unless it's really egregious or interrupting the class. Like doodling in a notebook or passing notes, it may hurt that student, but doesn't actively disrupt. If a student is doing it a lot, I might ask that student to share, since they're clearly looking up something very interesting and important. Usually gets the point across...
Forget it. You can't enforce it, unless you are prepared to remove students from your class pretty much every class period. And if you do that, you are going to suffer numerous types of backlash (complaints to your dept chair and dean, lousy evaluations, endless irritation on your part, and worst,students who come to class prepared for battle against you, instead of coming to class prepared to learn with you). That sets up a hostile classroom environment that nobody is going to enjoy.

I used to take a stronger stance on this and I have tried the policing approach. I still have a written policy in my syllabus and if students are being obnoxious about it (to the point of distracting others) then I reserve the right to call them out on it. I also make a point to talk quietly with the ones who are mentally elsewhere because they're texting the whole class period. Usually that's easy, because they're also failing exams - and I can point out the correlation to them from a stance of trying to help them improve their class grade.

But the real eye opener for me was a few years back when I attended a week-long professional development workshop. Every professor in the room (myself included, at some points) was on their laptop or mobile device at some point during the week's presentations. We all still participated and paid attention, had high-level discussions, generated creative ideas, thought more deeply about concepts, etc (all the things we want students to do in class). That caused me to rethink my expectations of my students. What's good for the know?
Yes, it is clear you have been out of the classroom for a long time in "technology years", because you didn't mention the F word: Facebook. Keeping up on Facebook is the new drinking-your-way-out-of-school pathway, distracting in class and interrupting sleep and study time.

It is also true that text messages are used in the many situations where talking on the phone is not appropriate. Many learned this in high school or even earlier, when it is Mom checking in.

One solution is to get off the stage. Few students want to update something or chat when you are looking over their shoulder. No desks along the back wall helps, so you can loop around the room. And there is always the old "passing notes" standby from ages past: ask them to read what they are writing down about the class discussion. ;-)

PS -
I have also observed that small computers (phone, tablet, laptop are really all the same thing) have made faculty meetings fly by.
Texting and internet use in class can certainly be problematic, but there's also something to be said for having the ability to call up facts and pictures on the spur of the moment. I sometimes delegate web-surfing students to research things online, when there's a question I don't know the answer to, or when there's visual material that would enhance class understanding of a certain topic. For instance, a seminar discussion on the Julio Cortazar story "Axolotl" benefited greatly by having the class members spend a few minutes examining the photos at This made an abstract concept more concrete, while looking at pictures of freaky salamanders helped loosen up the group to discuss a challenging modernist work.
My bigger concern is the phone going off during presentations--I teach speech courses. It's not fair to a speaker to have that annoying vibrating noise, of worse, a ringtone, go off during a speech. Luckily other students also find this annoying and the offender usually gets chastized. My big policy is putting your phone on silent. I ask ask that if they have family in the hospital, or are expecting to hear for a job interview, to let me know, and to answer the call after they've ducked out. This works quite well.

My colleagues want to wage a war on all texting. Frankly, I don't find it practical--I'd have to interrupt every time they text and unless every professor adopts the same policy, you're constantly waging different battles with different understandings of what's ok. Instead I state from day one that the people who text in class tend to be the people who do not do well in class. If a student asks a question because they missed something due to texting I'll remind them that they need to stop texting and they'll know answers. If a student who texts asks about what they can do to make their grade better, I remind them STOP TEXTING. This works for me. I'm not stopping class to kick people out and the students put together that they are responsible for themselves.
Thanks for the valuable insight.
Wise and worldly readers -- especially those currently teaching -- what would you suggest? Is there a more effective way?

First, your suggestion to make sure the policy is discussed in the syllabus and overtly stated on the first day of class is necessary.

Second, after telling students to put away their phones and keep them away during class, I usually don't have too many problems. If students are obviously texting, then during discussions or other times I'll simply tap on their desk and leave. That's usually enough to solve the problem.

Third, the only time that hasn't solved the problem, I asked a student to stay after class for a minute so I could ask, "What's up with your phone in class?" She couldn't really answer, and after that the phone problem went away.

Don't cast this as a power struggle and focus on establishing the tenor of the class early, and you'll probably be okay.

Granted, I'm teaching freshmen at a large university which might be different from community colleges.
More and more students use computers, tablets, and phones to access textbooks, take notes, and record class discussions. Many students with disabilities are given their gadget specifically to help them in class. I ask that if they use them, they tell me (and then I tell the class as a whole) if they are recording. As long as they are using these tools for my classwork, that's ok, but if they are working on assignments for other classes, facebooking, or checking email, I remind them to stop and focus on our class. Usually I don't have a problem, although as we approach finals I expect to see more students multitasking with other classes.
Speaking as a student...

To me, texting and other iPhone use are two different things. Just FYI.

I don't think that phones should be used in the class unless it's an emergency. I ignore mine unless there's something serious going on in my family, and if I have to take a call I leave the classroom first. And if I do have to send a text in class I feel guilty about it.
I don't really care who texts during class, but then I'm an adjunct and don't get paid enough to care.

But sometimes my students are actually looking at their phones and reading along with the texts we're doing. Just sayin'.
There should be strict rules ..on phone at institutions.. Its not a necessarily thing for students.. to carry at the schools.. They fall in affairs which effects on their studies.

Appraisal forms

One professor I work with has a policy, which is in her syllabus, that if a phone rings in class, she gets to answer it. Hilarity ensues often

Ring Ring! (Mortified student)

Ring Ring! (Mad scramble for the phone)


No, Bob's not available right now.. Actually, he's in class at the moment.

What? Oh, Introduction to Theater.

Please note the time and try not call him on Mondays and Wednesdays, Thanks.

All right. Have a good day.

(Class explodes in laughter)

-Mountain Man-
I do know some schools send texts, voice mails, e-mails etc if something bad is happening on campus. It is part of the warning system. The administration thus encourages students to bring their phones to class and to have them on vibrate on the off chance someone comes on campus with a gun.

We also have students who are volunteer firefighters (small town). They can be called upon during class. They also have phones on vibrate for that reason. If they are calling those off-duty it usually means something big is happening.

Needless to say, we have many students with phones in class. I don't have a specific policy other than the general respect your classmates and me. That works well. One phone has gone off in the classes I have taught in. I kept going staring at the student, directing the eyes of all the other students on the person whose phone was ringing. They scrambled to turn it off and everyone got the message.
For the most part, we are past the point where students see a ringing phone during class as acceptable (except for emergencies). 10 years ago, I was trying to figure out how to keep students from ANSWERING the phone during class time. No longer an issue. Social norms do evolve.

Actually, I had to laugh. In the 12 years I've been teaching, I had never had a time when my phone went off during class, but it did one day early this semester. I forgot I even had it in my bag until it started to ring. My students found that hilarious. We made it a teachable reminder moment, and I don't think anybody's phones have rung in that class, since (certainly not mine!).

The bigger issue is texting, facebook, and the myriad other distractions that wired campus + handheld technology offer. But I can't, and won't, police them all. That would take my focus off teaching and put the power in the hands of those students who are (apparently) least interested in being in class. Instead, I teach to those who want to be there, and the ones who surf facebook the whole class period tend to get the grade they deserve.
Speaking as another student here, I'd advise against a flat-out ban on mobile use. It pisses us off and automatically positions any phone use as adversarial, when in fact phones can be used quite respectfully (and as someone else pointed out, even productively) in a classroom setting.

I leave my (smart)phone on my desk in every class and always have. Maybe twice a semester I'll respond to a text message and once during my three and a half years I've left to make a phone call. But I do frequently glance at received text messages and when the discussion starts going around in circles, I will occasionally refresh my email inbox. My cell phone use has never been a problem and from my (albeit limited) experience at faculty events or conferences, most of you use your phones in the same way.

Work on making your class engaging and eventually they'll self-regulate and shun any disrespectful phone behaviour.
There are also tools out there that help you integrate cellphones into classroom work. For example, small groups can confer over and respond to quick debate or research questions by cell to a website that collates and organizes their responses. Even if you have a class that is primarily lecture-focused, you might find that getting students to think of their phone (in class) as a tool rather than as a toy.
Anonymous 6:27's comment is useful. Just as we learn to read body language to sense when a class discussion is nearing its useful end, we should probably view a rise in surreptitious cell-phone checking as a signal that we're losing people's attention. There may be other explanations, of course, but in some ways it is no different than other nonverbal cues that students send (and that we should be noticing).
Another student here. Wow, the self centered scumbag 6:27 am is so full of himself/herself. Honestly, you can't have enough respect for the instructor and the class to have your phone off. Then you have the nerve to say the instructor needs to be engaging? Good luck in life scumbag.
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