Sometimes I think back to the old days. I started teaching in graduate school way back in 1984 and have been a college professor teaching classes since 1988. In those early days, of course, there were no cell phones, ipads, notebooks, or laptops. Students came to class and did not have the potential distraction of an electronic device. Oh how things have changed! Now students come to class, often with multiple electronic devices, and they are ready and willing to use these devices in class. However, there is a question about how you should think about these devices, specifically your cell phone, in class.
In answering this question, I want to begin by saying that myself and most other faculty use our cellphones a lot. We are heavily into them, using them all of the time to call people, text, check out the Internet, play games, etc. Thus, what I will say isn’t the case of an old faculty member who refuses to accept the innovations of the 21st century. With this in mind, just hear me out on what I think you should do with your cellphone in class.
1) In thinking about what to do with your cell phone in class, you need to first change the way you think about your attachment to your cellphone. I am sure that in certain ways you and your cellphone are “one”. However, in the classroom you just can’t be thinking about things in this way. Part of the issue is that you need to pay attention to what is being said in class, take notes, and participate in class. You are going to be limited in these activities if you are checking your cellphone every few seconds to see if you have a new text. Let me add two things about this change of thinking. First, the size of the class should not matter here, because even large classes will require you to be attentive and complete your work. Second research has shown that students understand that a classroom is an inappropriate place to use a cellphone (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229862354_Cellular_phone_etiquette_among_college_students)
2) Figure out a strategy that will keep you from constantly looking at your phone. For example, it might be best to put your cellphone in your backpack or in your pocket with the ringer turned off. You will be able to hear it buzz or feel the vibration (especially in your pocket) if an emergency call or text is coming through, but you are not looking at your cellphone all of the time. You might want to check, however, if having the buzzer on is OK, or if your Instructor expects your cellphone to be on silent. To me it is only reasonable to allow for a buzzer in case of an emergency (see #5 below). Will it be tough to follow this type of strategy? Of course! But, you need to stop yourself in some way, and having your cellphone out of view is very important. One other thing to point out here is that I know some people look at their cellphone a lot to check out the time; their cellphone serves as a watch. Still, you need to try and stop looking at your cellphone so much. Looking at the time will typically lead to checking phone calls, texts, and the Internet. Therefore, get used to checking the time by looking at the classroom clock.
3) Understand the rules for cellphone use that are presented in each course syllabus. It is likely the case that your Instructor will frown upon cellphone use unless it is used in conjunction with an educational app, and will state in the syllabus that you should not use it during class. This may even include telling you that you cannot use your cellphone to take pictures of material presented on the board/screen. In some cases (so I have heard) things may be much stricter, and the Instructor may include penalizing points for using your cellphone. Finally, it is possible that your Instructor will allow you to have your cellphone out, although the ringer must be off. The key is that there is almost surely going to be something in the syllabus for each of your classes about cellphones, and you need to know this information.
4) Don’t try to play games with your Instructor. By this I mean that over the years I have encountered students who either think they can “pull one on the old guy” or that I am simply “out of it”. This includes students who text with their phones on their lap. Do they think I really cannot see them? I guess not, but even in a room with 500 students you can see students texting—a student moving their hands in their lap with their head down when I am not lecturing is a dead giveaway! When your Instructor says no cellphones can be out they mean it. One caveat to all of this is that I have talked to students who make an interesting point about cellphone use. They tell me that sometimes students who pull out their cellphones are not being intentionally rude, but are doing so automatically (i.e., “texting unconsciously”)—they are not really aware that they are being rude. As a psychologist, I understand what they are saying but this can still turn into a big problem, and to me indicates all the more reason why that these students need to put their cellphone in their backpacks during class.
5) Think about the best way to use your cellphone in case of an emergency. Of course, emergencies happen and having a cellphone is just what we all need to be able to deal with the unexpected. Because of the importance of cellphones in these situations, check to be sure you can have your phone on buzzer so you can hear if an unexpected text or phone call is coming through. If your Instructor expects you to have your phone on silent, you might want to approach them and see if there is any flexibility on this rule. I am betting your Instructor will see your point of view, especially because it is likely the case that your Instructor has their phone on buzzer. On a related point, if an emergency call or text comes through, my advice is to get up quietly from your seat and go into the hallway to talk or text. You might even want to later explain to your Instructor why you had to leave the classroom.
In the end, like many other issues dealing with being in class, it is important that your cellphone use allows you to be courteous and respectful to your Instructor and your classmates. This behavior will make for a more positive classroom experience.
Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.