Cell Phones in Class: A Student Survey

Written by: Maryellen Weimer, Ph.D.
Published On: March 22, 2013

Cell phones in the classroom—it’s a topic that generates much consternation among faculty. Are policies that prohibit their use enforceable? Are students texting in class? If so, how many? If a student is texting, does that distract other students? Are students using their phones to cheat? Are there any ways cell phones can be used to promote learning? The questions are many and the answers are still a long way from definitive.

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Most faculty have opinions about how much cell phone use is occurring in their classrooms, but those individual answers need a larger context and independent verification. A recent survey of 269 college students representing 21 majors from 36 different courses, and equally distributed between first-year students, sophomores, juniors, and seniors standing, offers this kind of benchmarking data. This student cohort answered 26 questions that inquired as to their use of cell phones as well as their observations regarding the cell phone use of their peers.

Virtually all the students (99 percent) reported that they had cell phones, and 97 percent said that they used their phones for text messaging. Another significant majority (95 percent) said they brought their phones to class every day, and 91 percent reported that they set their phones to vibrate. Only 9 percent said that they turned their phones off. As for their use of cell phones, 97 percent said they send or received text messages while waiting for class to begin, and 92 percent admitted that they had sent or received a text message during class. Thirty percent reported that they send and receive messages every day in class. Virtually all these students (97 percent) indicated that they had seen texting being done by other students in the classroom.

However, these students do not feel that their instructors know that they are texting. Almost half of them “indicated that it is easy to text in class without the instructor being aware.” (p. 4) One survey question asked students to complete this statement: “If college instructors only knew _______ about text messaging in the classroom, they would be shocked.” The most common student response, offered by 54 percent of the students, was that teachers would be shocked if they knew how much texting was occurring in class. Obviously, class size influences the extent of texting or at least student perceptions of how easy it is to text without the teacher knowing.

Did students in this survey report that they were using their cell phones to cheat? Ten percent did indicate that they had sent or received a text message during an exam, with 9 percent saying it was easy to text during exams. Interestingly, 33 percent of students in the sample chose not to answer this question. The authors note, “Failure to answer could be seen as a reflection of the respondents’ desire to either not risk self-incrimination, or to not reveal to faculty that texting during an exam is a possibility.” (p. 4)

Students in this cohort didn’t feel that texting caused serious problems in the classroom. They did understand that the person texting is being distracted and maybe distracts a few students sitting nearby, but these students were reluctant to support a policy that forbids the use of cell phones. More than 64 percent believe students should be allowed to keep their cell phones on as long as they are placed on vibrate. Less than 1 percent said that cell phones should not be permitted in the classroom under any circumstances. About one-third reported that it was easier to text in a class if the professor had no policy against cell phones or appeared to be laid-back and relaxed about their use.

When asked about cell phone policies that work, students didn’t offer much in the way of concrete suggestions beyond being able to use them as long as they didn’t disturb others. Faculty policies described in the article include confiscating any phone that rings or phones that are being used for texting. Some professors answer phones that ring in class. If a student is observed texting, some professors count that student as absent for the day.

Given the pervasiveness of cell phones and the acceptability of their use almost anywhere these days, it’s difficult to imagine successfully enforcing almost any policy in the classroom and still having time left to teach. 

What is your policy for cell phones in class? 

Reference: Tindell, D. R. and Bohlander, R. W. (2012). The use and abuse of cell phones and text messaging in the classroom: A survey of college students. College Teaching, 60 (1), 1-9.

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This article originally appeared in the newsletter The Teaching Professor 26.3 (2012): 5. The Teaching Professor is a lively, informative newsletter with a singular purpose: to provide ideas and insight to educators who are passionate about teaching.