A digital device policy in the classroom

Every semester, it gets harder and harder for me to police student distraction in my classes. I set policies, they become hard to enforce, and then things spiral out of control. Lather, rinse, repeat. It seems to get harder each semester as we become even more connected to our digital devices.

This semester I am teaching two courses that are both lecture style. I often do in-class active learning activities that require a laptop or calculator. Students can work with one of their peers if they forget their laptop. I ask students to keep their laptops and cell phones away during class when we are not doing an activity that requires their use, but over time, the laptops come out.

Sometimes when class starts I remind students to put their laptops away until we need to use them. The laptop lids close, but half a dozen laptops reopen within 15 minutes of the announcement. I am losing the battle.

Laptops and cell phones are a distraction to everyone, not just the students who are using the laptops, and they interfere with everyone’s learning. I can handle some disrespect in the classroom but I become less tolerant when students are disrespecting their peers who want to learn.

I am experimenting with new ways to set and enforce policies. I firmly believe in focusing on student learning and treating students like adults. I think it’s better for me to set policies that trains students to deal with expectations they will encounter in other parts of their lives rather than stick with an unnuanced ban.

Below is a message I posted to my course discussion board. The statement (aside from the opening paragraph) will now be added to my course syllabus. I plan to introduce the cell phone use rubric periodically throughout the semester when things spiral out of control. Feedback is welcome.


I want to clarify the laptop policy in class. My ultimate goal is student learning, and the time we have in class is a great opportunity for us to learn. I know everyone is attached to their digital devices and it’s hard to put them down. (Confession: it’s hard for me, too). Here are some guidelines for device use in class.

Laptop and cellphone policy. Laptops and tablets should be put away and closed if we are not using them for an in-class example. Research* shows that laptop use in class leads to lower grades for those with the laptops and even lower grades for those who are sitting by the laptop users due to the distractions they provide. I ask that you respect your peers’ desire to learn and not engage in distracting behavior in class.

* Sana, F., Weston, T. and Cepeda, N.J., 2013. Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, pp.24-31.

Here is an article about the research: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/08/14/laptops-in-classrooms_n_3756831.html

This is a guide for cell phone usage in class:


I’ve made a few memes that I use in class but they no longer work and my undergrads are no longer familiar with Star Wars episodes IV-VI! But I like them 🙂



One response to “A digital device policy in the classroom

  • Ellie Kesselman

    I hope that this turns out to be effective! Use (overuse) of cell phones and laptops during work meetings at the bank where I work are a real problem too. Most of my colleagues have PhDs in economics or applied math, which is no excuse for not paying attention.

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