Smartphones in the Classroom—The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly!
If you gather a room full of teachers and ask if they incorporate smartphones in their lessons, be prepared for a passionate debate. I was reminded of this debate recently when I read two articles, both of which were published in June 2017. In one article, the writer advocated that teachers should never ban using a smartphone in the classroom. The reasoning was based on a study conducted in Singapore in which undergraduate students allowed to keep their phones close by themselves scored better on tests that measured their cognitive functioning. Researchers theorized that students performed poorly if their smartphones were taken away from them during class because the students experienced anxiety, thinking that they were missing communications, and their anxiety detracted from their learning.
In the second article, a study conducted at the University of Texas found that student scores on tests that involved math, memory, and reasoning were 10 percent lower if they had a smartphone within reach compared with students whose smartphones were left in another room. Researchers theorized that the distractions caused by the smartphones led to the lower test scores.
Is it any wonder that teachers cannot agree on smartphone use in the classroom?
In my own teaching experience, I decided early on not to ban their use. My reasoning was based upon the “pick your battle” approach. I just didn’t think I would win the battle and I did not want to take up valuable class time sparring with those who wanted to test me.
I remember well a student who used to come to class and rarely raise his eyes to look at the board. I assumed he spent the entire class texting his friends. I planned to speak to him privately about his behavior but before the right moment occurred, he spoke up in class about our topic that day. What he had to say told me he had heard and understood every word. I realized my assumption was wrong. Maybe he was using his phone to type his notes?
I also recall a moment in an accounting class when a student used her phone to take a picture of a problem I had worked out on the board. I remember thinking that was a clever idea. She got the information accurately and she had it in a format that was easy for her to locate. Instead of spending time trying to record the solution as I was working through it, she could sit back and think about the solution. I realized that all I had to do was pause and get out of the way after the problem was finished to give those who wanted a picture of the whiteboard a clear view.
Not all my experiences have been positive. I certainly had situations where it seemed the smartphone user was distracting others. I found my comfort zone when I made my expectations clear at the beginning of a course and consistently dealt with situations when those expectations were not met. For example, I never allowed a smartphone to be used during tests or other graded activities. In my accounting class, I told students they had to bring a handheld calculator for all tests. At the beginning of each class, I would take out my smartphone, put it on silent mode, and ask students to do the same. We should never assume students inherently know and remember to follow respectful practices.
Here are some other reasons why smartphone use might be encouraged:
- Smartphones give students access to a variety of tools such as a calculator, calendar, notepad, dictionary, map, or an Internet browser.
- A smartphone or tablet might replace the need for a student to carry around a heavy laptop.
- Free apps are available for classroom polls and other engaging techniques—no clickers required!
- Part of our job is to prepare students for the work environment and the expectations of employers. Encouraging appropriate usage rather than banning the device is more practical.
Here are some reasons why you may dread seeing those devices:
- A University of New Hampshire study found that college students check their phones between one and five times during class. Chances are they are checking their phones for social media posts and texts—all distractions from learning.
- Some studies have shown that smartphone use reduces cognitive thinking skills. The constant use of the smartphone to look up information may lead to a decline in the ability of a student to retain information or critically think through a problem.
- Relying on the smartphone for information gathering, sharing, and communication may isolate students in the classroom.
There is no easy solution or template for smartphone usage in the classroom. Keep a dialogue going with colleagues and experiment with their use until you find your comfort zone!
Lynch, Matthew, Why Professors Shouldn’t Ban Smartphones, The Tech Edvocate, June 20, 2017.
McGoogan, Cara and Titcomb, James, Just looking at your smartphone makes you less intelligent, study finds, The Telegraph (United Kingdom), June 27, 2017.