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Keep smartphones from becoming a distraction in class

Faculty members weigh in on strategies for keeping students’ minds on the subject matter.
By Anslee Wolfe

The vast majority of college students now own smartphones and other digital devices—which leaves many faculty members searching for ways to keep these gadgets from becoming distractions in the classroom.

Research shows just how connected students are to their devices, especially their smartphones. One study found that college students check their smartphones an average of 60 times a day for about three to four minutes at a time—that’s nearly four hours spent on their phones alone. In a survey, 92% of students said they were distracted by their phones during class; they named texting as the biggest culprit, followed by email, checking the time, and social media.

Given how prevalent these devices have become, it’s prudent to develop a policy on whether, and how, students can use them in your classes. Faculty members take a variety of approaches toward “digital distractions,” with some banning them outright and others taking a more moderate view. Here are how some accounting professors have tackled the problem:

Ban devices altogether.

Reza Espahbodi, CPA, Ph.D., Dibble Professor of Accounting at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, has no qualms about banning the devices from his class. He allows calculators, though not phone-based calculator apps, only in classes that require quantitative problem-solving. Students caught violating the ban lose points from their grade. The third time, they receive an F for the class.

He banned digital devices about three years ago, once they became too distracting. Some students were shopping online, texting, and going in and out of class to make or take calls, for example.

“It’s much better now,” said Espahbodi. “Some people are unhappy, but for the most part I think they realize it’s for their own good.”

He does make exceptions for emergencies. One student recently had a grandfather in the hospital, so Espahbodi told him to silence his phone and step out into the hall if he received a call.

Allow students to use their phones for in-class activities.

Back when smartphones first became popular, Yvonne Hinson, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., required them to be tucked away. But Hinson, who taught for 18 years at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., before joining the AICPA as its academic-in-residence, realized over time that students were trying to covertly use them. She tried the program Socrative—an app for polling and quizzing—and told students to keep their phones out so they’d be ready to answer questions.

“I felt like they were less likely to pick the phones up and do other things with them because they were sitting right there on their desks,” said Hinson.

It worked well, seemingly cutting down on distractions.

“All of a sudden smartphone use went from being frustrating to being more interactive,” she said. The app, she said, “also allowed me to gauge whether they were understanding the material or not.”

Angela Andrews, clinical assistant professor in accounting at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, took a similar approach. Students “can’t put their cellphones down anyway, so it’s better to incorporate them into class,” she said.

Once Andrews integrated the software Top Hat for polling and taking attendance, she said students in general seem more focused, knowing they could see their phones without pulling them out to check them.

“Before, every time they had them out, it had nothing to do with class. Now it appears they’re less of a distraction,” she said. “I’ve always sought out new technology. I encourage trying to use it to your benefit in helping keep students focused.”

Leave it up to the students, but set the expectation that they won’t use their devices in class.

Randy Elder, Ph.D., DHG Term Professor and head of the accounting and finance department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has heard of cases where students have been caught using their smartphones to cheat on tests. 

Elder has not had issues during tests, and he doesn't currently use classroom apps. His syllabus states that students are expected not to email or text during class. If he sees students using their smartphones, he usually emails them after class.

“Generally speaking, I find students are typically respectful,” he said, noting that it may have to do with the fact that he’s mostly taught seniors and graduate students. “I think the professor has to set the standard that you expect they won’t be on their phones. That’s in part teaching them professionalism.”

Laptops in class are trickier, he said, but he’s OK with students using them as long as it’s for taking notes—not for checking email, using Facebook, or browsing the internet. He’ll say “lids need to be down” if it’s time for a class discussion.

“If you ask a question and a student has a computer open and searches on the internet for the answer, I’m not interested in that,” he said. “I'm interested in them thinking and reasoning it through.”

The majority of his students don’t use laptops, and he believes it’s because they’ve come to realize they learn better by hand-writing their notes.

Hinson used to ban laptops from her class but then allowed them with the expectation that students would use them responsibly. At the beginning of the semester, she’d tell them how distracting laptops can be to others nearby: “If you’re in the second row and shopping online, people behind you are seeing that.”

She hopes bringing technology into the classroom will help accommodate students’ different learning styles. Some prefer to hand-write notes, while others want to type them. Some want actual textbooks; others want online textbooks.

“I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all,” she said. “You have to be flexible in your classroom. I think you need to consider the generation you're teaching and how they best learn.”

Anslee Wolfe is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs, Colo. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien.

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