Phones in Class: Can They Be More Than a Distraction?

Cellphones—are they a bane or a powerful tool?

The answer is both. Cell phones are shown to be addictive thanks to the dopamine hit they provide, according to Dr. Anna Lembke, psychiatrist and author of Dopamine Nation. The irresistible temptation to check phones in the middle of class has led many institutions to enact cell phone bans.

On the other hand, a 2021 Institute of Education Sciences report found technology in the classroom helped students learn collaboratively and more actively. Those against outright phone bans and other restrictive phone policies in schools point to the mindful use of social media that can benefit students’ mental health and well-being.

The sense of connection fostered by cell phones and social media can improve student engagement and academic success. A thoughtful approach to using phones in the classroom can benefit both instructors and students. Here’s how to implement screen time in your college classroom using tech like Poll Everywhere to engage and motivate students.

5 ways to use phones in class to enhance student learning

Along with creative approaches to using phones to increase student engagement, these five tips can help you prepare for the inevitable appearance of devices in your classroom.

1. Set expectations

Let students know when cell phones are permitted in class and when they aren’t. Include rules on whether notification tones must be silent, if phones must be in airplane mode, or if the use of cell phones isn’t permitted at all during the school day.

Clearly outline any consequences if students use their phones at the wrong time or in the wrong way. Share these expectations at the beginning of the semester—you might even ask students to sign a learning agreement acknowledging these expectations.

Cell phones can foster connection in class: Allow students to share their favorite song or artist during class. Music is shown to improve focus, and sharing interests helps students bond.

2. Survey students about their cell phone preferences

At the start of the semester, send out a poll to understand how students expect to use phones in your classroom. Dig deeper to uncover the reasons why they may or may not want access to their phones during class, or any limitations to your students’ experience. They may not have internet access at home or only have irregular access to a smartphone.

This gives you a better idea of how you can use students’ phones and apps to improve engagement and the overall learning experience.

Pro tip: In-class surveys boost engagement and allow you to see which students are struggling with the course content.

3. Educate students on how phones can affect academic performance

If your phone policy means students only have access to their devices at specific times, educating students on the why within your policy can help them more readily adjust.

Start the first class with this YouTube video from Prince Ea about how technology can take over our lives if we let it. Or use class time to watch all or select sections of The Social Dilemma.

Don’t forget: Unfortunately, school violence and cyberbullying are all too common occurrences for today’s youth. Stress to students that school safety apps sponsored by their campus are important for receiving emergency alerts and staying secure.

Encourage them to also reach out to your university’s mental health department if they need in-person support.

4. Use apps to improve instruction

Many phone apps available can enhance productivity, communication, and engagement in your class. Some of our favorite apps for teachers include Slack, Khan Academy, and Poll Everywhere:

  • Slack: A communication app that’s perfect for asynchronous discussion between students
  • Khan Academy: A library of free online courses students can use to supplement classroom learning
  • Poll Everywhere: An interactive poll, quiz, and multiple-choice question tool that allows students to answer questions and educators to assess comprehension
  • Miro: A virtual whiteboard app that lets you add visuals to online lectures
  • Remind: A communication app that allows instructors to send reminders about homework deadlines and upcoming exams

Other classroom management apps are accessible through laptops, tablets, and mobile phones, allowing students to check instructor feedback on coursework or collaborate on upcoming projects.

Did you know? You can connect Poll Everywhere to Slack and create polls in Slack channels.

5. Don’t make assumptions about student cell phone use

You’re in the middle of a lecture and notice a student checking their phone. Your initial response may be to call them out and ask them to put it away—but is that response based on assumption?

Sometimes students aren’t checking their phones because they’re scrolling through TikTok, but instead because they have responsibilities that need their attention. Students may be caregivers to siblings, parents, or children. They may have a part-time job sending text messages about upcoming hours. Others may use smartphones for translation purposes if English isn’t their first language.

Instead of making an example of these students in class, take them aside privately. Chat with them about what you can do to allow them access to their phones and how they can make it less distracting for all students.

How do you use phones in your classroom?

The debate over the value of cell phones in the classroom has been raging for years, and it won’t end anytime soon. What we do know is that students’ cell phone usage is bound to increase, especially after these devices became a primary form of connection for most during the pandemic.

These five strategies can help you make room for phones in your classroom in a way that enhances student learning instead of creating distractions. It’s worth exploring the growing array of apps that can increase student engagement in your classroom and give your students new ways to learn and express their ideas.

Learn everything you need to know about engaging students with their phones, from polls and presentations to games and icebreakers, in our guide.