Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Use of Electronic Devices in Class

The presence and use of electronic devices in the undergraduate classroom creates strong opinions as well as confusion among instructors. Policies vary as to allowing students to use mobile phones, tablets and/or laptops, and eBooks during class. These devices may hinder or support the learning environment, depending on course context and how classroom policies are written.

A body of literature in psychology research suggests that the use of electronic devices in class can lead to a distracting learning environment. While much of the research has relied on self-report, Ravizza et al. (2016) measured the actual duration of student Internet use in class using laptops, student motivation, achievement in class, and intelligence. They found that students who used laptops in class for nonacademic reasons had poorer class performance, as indicated by their final grade. These students spent most of their in-class web time on social media, e-mail clients, and shopping websites. Researchers also found that although students accurately self-reported their internet use in class and predicted its impact (whether negative or positive) on their learning, this did not change their class behaviors. Student intelligence as measured by ACT score, interest in the material, and motivation to learn did not account for these findings. Outcomes of cell phone studies echoed these results in the context of multitasking (Junco, 2012).

Pedagogically, however, there is also value to using electronic devices in class. Small studies indicate improvements to active learning and student engagement with content through the use of Twitter (which requires personal devices for students), especially when that use was continued outside the classroom (Chawinga 2017, Al-Bahrani, et. al 2015, and Jaquemin, et. al 2014). Tablets and laptops can also enable the use of eBooks, and are sometimes essential to maintaining accessibility standards. Ultimately, instructors can consider major research findings, their own philosophy on the issue, the goals of their instruction, and the goals and needs of their students as they craft policies and strategies to maximize student engagement.

Examples

If instructors choose to introduce electronic devices in class, several strategies can reduce the forms of distraction identified in recent research:

  • Targeted Electronic Activities - As explored below, inviting students to utilize their devices for specific learning activities involving polls, notetaking, Twitter, or collaboration can channel the desire to engage with devices, recognize the realities in students’ social lives, and teach how those realities can enable more effective learning practices. 
  • Integrating of Polling Software - Online programs such as Poll Everywhere allow instructors to ask questions as a formative assessment to monitor student learning. Students can quickly respond to polls using their mobile phones.  
  • Student Notetaking - Some students may desire to take notes on their laptops or other devices. Research suggests that writing notes out by hand is more effective than by computer (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014); however, collaborative or shared notetaking strategies may be easier with electronic devices. 
  • Student Research - For courses in which students must find primary or secondary sources, access to online library databases and other resources is often imperative.  
  • Student Collaboration - A variety of tools can be used for collaboration in the classroom. For example, a Google Doc is a web-based tool that can be edited by all students at the same time, making it appealing for group work. 
  • Implementation of Active Learning Exercises - Active learning exercises may require students to access online websites and tools to perform group activities like concept mapping, surveys, or class-time research.

Recommendations

  • Course Syllabi Policies - In general, clear guidelines can be given on the syllabus as to whether students are permitted to use electronic devices in the class. Syllabus language and classroom policy language can be easily adapted and modeled. The instructor should announce any policies on the first day of class, and may need to revisit them as needed during the semester.   
  • “Leave it in the Bag” (Every or Most Classes)- As Straumsheim (2016) suggests, if an instructor does not want their students to use their mobile phones during class, they can verbally indicate this at the beginning of class and demonstrate by holding their cell phone up, turning it off or silencing, and putting it away. The instructor can also give time for students to follow the same actions. Impact on participation or attendance may be considered for policy violations.
  • Put Away Devices (After Use in Class) - If an instructor permits students to use technology for a particular academic activity, at the conclusion of the lesson, the instructor can explicitly state that it is now time for the students to log off or put devices away, and give time for students to do so. Impact on participation or attendance may be considered for policy violations.
  • Active Learning Exercises  - As an evidence-based strategy, instructors should consider implementing the active engagement of students in class. Students are less likely to access social media, e-mail, etc. on their devices when they are more engaged in class and motivated to participate.  
  • Instructor Walks Around the Classroom - In general, instructors who are physically able can walk around during class. This can be particularly powerful during group or pair work when an instructor is able to discuss topics 1:1 with students and/or pose questions. These interactions can encourage student attentiveness in class while discouraging improper device use.
  • Notetaking - Practices like collaborative note taking on a Google doc or concept mapping in MindMeister can encourage focused use of electronic devices, and instructors can set clear expectations that students take active notes in class. When laptops are not permitted in class, instructors can reiterate to students how research has shown that note taking by hand proves more effective than by laptop computer (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014).
  • Accessibility Awareness - Instructors should provide clear spoken and syllabus language welcoming students to share their accessibility concerns, and provide dynamic electronic policies to support students who are print- disabled.

References

Al-Bahrani, A., and Patel, D. (2015). Incorporating Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook in Economics Classrooms. Journal of Economic Education 46.1: 56-67.

Chawinga, W. (2017). Taking social media to a university classroom: teaching and learning using Twitter and blogs. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education 14.1: 1-19.

Jacquemin, S., Smelser, L., and Bernot, M. (2014). Twitter in the Higher Education Classroom: A Student and Faculty Assessment of Use and Perception. Journal of College Science Teaching 43.6: 22-27. 

Junco R. (2012). In-class multitasking and academic performance. Computers in Human Behavior 28(6): 2236-2243.

Mueller PA & Oppenheimer DM. (2014). The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science 25(6):1159-1168.

Ravizza SM, Uitvlugt MG, Fenn KM. (2016). Logged in and Zoned Out: How Laptop Internet Use Relates to Classroom Learning. Psychological Science, 1-10.

Straumsheim C. (2016). Leave it in the Bag. Inside Higher Education.