Thursday, March 14, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cell Phones

Cat on the Phone
In the past I wrote about some big problems I have with cell phones:

  1. Students are rude with their cell phones
  2. Cell-phone bans cause students significant anxiety.

Science is the best way to understand the universe and solve our problems; I wanted to tackle this problem scientifically. So I applied The Method.

First step: ask an answerable question. This is a bit harder than it might at first seem, since whatever question I ask will need some definitions so that it can be answered. Simply asking, "What is best?" is not sufficient unless we all agree on what "best" is. So here is what I came up with:
How much cell-phone use in class results in the greatest academic achievement, course engagement, and student satisfaction?
That question has three measurable outcomes, as long as I define how I will measure those results. So for the purposes of this experiment I used the following operational definitions:

  • Academic achievement was measured by overall course grade (points out of 1000).
  • Course engagement was measured by counting good-questions asked per class.
  • Student Satisfaction was measured by an end-of-course evaluation by students.

The next step is to do background research so I read a multitude of articles about cell-phones and attention, cell-phones and learning, anxiety and learning, cell-phones and anxiety, and many other permutations of the key-words: cell-phone, learning, anxiety, engagement, classroom, and teaching. After weeks of literature review I thought I was ready to design my study.

Since I was teaching three sections of Introduction to Psychology on the same day that semester. I planned a different cell-phone policy for each class and put the relevant information in the syllabus.

1. Verboten: "There will be NO cell-phone use during class. Phones must be off or on silent, remember that vibrations are sounds, turn your phone off.. If I see your phone out I will take it and put it on my desk for the duration of class. If you are expecting an emergency call inform the caller ahead of time to wait and call after class time, or do not come to class until your anxiety about your potential emergency has been resolved. After your third offense I will begin to penalize your course grade. " (Note: Thankfully no students called my bluff on the harshness of this policy.)

2. Permissive: There was no statement about cell-phones in the syllabus and I ignored completely any use or ringing of cell-phones.

3. Interval: "The class will be organized into roughly 20-minute blocks of activity (20 minutes of lecture, 20 minutes of video, 20 minutes of group work, 20 minutes of an in-class activity, etc.). During these times you may not use your cell-phone, not even for texting. However, between blocks there will be 2-5 minutes of transition time during which you are free to check your messages, send a tweet, update your status, or whatever it is you do on your phones. I will make clear announcements about when it is cell-time and when it is class-time before and after these transitions."

I generated a lot of usable data from this semester and went about analyzing the results. As far as academic achievement was concerned there was no significant difference between all three courses. The Interval section had significantly greater course engagement and student satisfaction (even out scoring the cell-phone permissive section). So to interpret and speculate a bit, I think this shows that good students are still good students regardless of cell-phone policy (they probably weren't using their phones even when allowed) and bad students are still bad students even if they aren't texting. But, students engage with the course more when they are not anxious about their missed messages while remaining free from texts for large blocks of class time. I also speculate that student satisfaction is directly influenced by higher classroom engagement.

The last step will be to share my results, which I suppose I am doing here, but I'm also preparing a manuscript to share with the larger scholarship of teaching and learning community. In the mean time I have adopted the interval policy in all of my courses since. Thank you Science!


  1. Very cool experiment. I'm wondering if the increased satisfaction found in the last class had more to do with the fact that students' were given a guide with which they could structure their attention, and less with access to mobile devices. The way the class was set up fits in with a lot that I've read about working intensely in pre-determined segments of time that alternate with short breaks.

    1. Good point, and maybe it isn't clear, but the course structure was the same between all three groups. That is to say, in both the verbotten and permissive conditions class was broken into 20 minute segments with 2-3 minute interstitial periods.