Against Distraction, Usually in the Form of Devices [Discovering Your Authentic Teaching Self]

Over my years of teaching, one thing has always been a pet peeve of mine: laptops, phones, smart watches… etc. As someone who doesn’t necessarily believe that controlling every little thing students do is necessary for a good learning environment, I don’t like devices in my classroom for a two main reasons.

  1. Devices are distracting: In addition to the beeping, buzzing, and (most recently) flashing that LED technologies are capable of emitting in the middle of a class, they are also a source of distraction because of what they connect students to outside of the learning space. Some people fault the studies done claiming that laptops are not good in the classroom for being biased and not broadly applicable. Regardless of the studies, my personal experience as an instructor is that I am distracted by them.
  2. Using devices inappropriately during class is disrespectful. While some might exercise self control, more often than not, even the presence of a phone on someone’s desk is enough to get them to pay more attention to the device than to the learning environment. Frankly, I find it disrespectful to me as the instructor and to the other students that someone feels the need to answer messages, calls, chats, or worse (online shopping, watching TV, watching games, playing games) during a class that they have paid to attend, that I have prepared for them, that other students count on to be a place where they can engage with other students.

Devices are distracting and tempt students into disrespectful behaviors. Distracting students and the instructor in and of itself is disrespectful. My policy in my in-person classes is that laptops can only be used if they are part of an accommodation plan for students with disabilities. And because of this, I have gotten emails back from students. They say that they learn better by typing. They tell me that they don’t like to hand write their notes. This brings up a huge dilemma: Should I believe them or should I do what I need to do to teach without being distracted?

Here’s where I will get even more real: is it more important for the instructor or the student to be comfortable in the classroom? Can the instructor teach effectively if they feel disrespected, ignored, and distracted? Is the level of annoyance at taking hand written notes more pressing than my need as an instructor not to feel like I’m talking to a wall? This is a tough thing to work through because it gets to the heart of what pedagogy is about. If pedagogy is about effective learning, then what factors are most important in bringing this about? As the instructor, I don’t think I need to bow down to this new pressure to be “chill” and let students do what they want, just hoping they are getting what they need to get out of the course. That is not what they are paying for, what I signed up to do, or what my job description requires from me. In order for me to be an effective instructor, I need to have students that are not being engaged by outside sources during my lectures. Several of my students have backed up my opinions on this, as they are grateful that I am not counting on their classmates to “do the right thing.” By taking the inevitably distracting and disrespectful choice off the table, they can just focus on the material and the space they are in. As instructors, we should also be aware that the hour we have with our students might be the only hour of concentration they can give to the subject for the week. We are setting everyone up to fail by not creating optimal learning environments. In some cases, this might be impossible to enforce, like when we are all online. However, I think it is worth preserving this special and focused learning environment once we are back to in-person classes.


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4 Responses to Against Distraction, Usually in the Form of Devices [Discovering Your Authentic Teaching Self]

  1. Hi, so I get where you are coming from, and I have been there before too. I have been the student in the classroom sitting by a person who is shopping or clearly doing work for other courses (it’s so distracting and frustrating). I have also taught to students who engage in this kind of behavior in the classroom (it made me feel insulted and disappointed).

    So I too used to have a very anti-device stance, but have reversed my opinion on this in my years of teaching and watching others teach. Mostly because I let go of feeling like I had to have control over the environment–and let students be the ones in control of their learning. I know that if I set up activities and experiences that are interesting to students, they won’t be wasting their time in the class on their devices, they will be actively engaged and learning.

    I only ask that people be respectful, so if you must shop or do something else, sit where your behavior doesn’t directly distract other students (i.e.: sit in the back). And I realized (especially after I became a parent) that sometimes folks need to be able to see their phone in case they are on call, there is an emergency, or any number of other valid reasons. Having my phone within reach didn’t mean that I wasn’t paying attention in the class, but it did mean that I was able to be present in the class while also meeting my non-curricular responsibilities. I realized then that many students are caregivers or have work responsibilities that mean they may need to be able to access their devices. If someone is playing on their phone, I ask myself what can I do differently to capture their curiosity and interest in the lesson. These become moments for me to reflect upon and perhaps improve my teaching. This is just one example, of course; but even with all the changes I have implemented, I don’t find that my students are doing whatever they want– in fact, engagement and interest improves because I believe in allowing students room to have agency in their learning.

  2. hleah

    I agree with many of Sarah’s points, and thought I might offer a specific alternative that’s worked for the professor I’m co-teaching with this year. We have a line in the syllabus, essentially, asking students to remain on-task on their devices and to leave the classroom if something else really presently needs their attention, so they’re not distracting other students. When my PI gets to this part of the syllabus on the first day of class, he says “honestly, it hurts my feelings.” This has been incredibly effective (I think largely because he does mean it)–we’ve had students come up after class at various points apologizing for having something else up on their screen for very understandable reasons, even though we never knew about them, and I very rarely catch students off-task on their devices in that class. I don’t think there’s any one strategy that will work for every person, but I think it’s worth asking yourself if you’re addressing the root cause of students feeling the need/desire/ability to be off-task in your class.

    I will also say that I think a blanket ban on devices is an accessibility issue, even if you allow exceptions for students with documented disabilities. I’ve known blind students who need computers with screen readers to read and take notes. Most people can type faster than they can write by hand, which makes a big difference for students that have a hard time identifying the most important information in-the-moment and need to process it later. I have a brother and another friend who can’t hand-write for more than a few minutes without their hands hurting (one with fine motor skills issues and the other with arthritis), and for whom the pain of handwriting would certainly be a distraction. Not all of these are commonly-documented disabilities, and may not be things the students feel comfortable talking to you about. So I’d really encourage you to reflect on your assertion that students’ requests are driven by a “level of annoyance” while your perspective is driven by “need”.

  3. austingarren01


    I wrote my first blog post on this topic as well, though from the opposite stance and from the point of view of a student that struggles with organization rather than a teacher. Though I see your points, I still have to respectfully disagree.

    I think that one thing that has somewhat been forgotten or disregarded in relation to this topic is the student’s responsibility to be a good learner. Though teachers can make various policies and enforce them to the best of their abilities, at the end of the day, it is still the student’s choice as to whether or not they will apply themselves. There are many students who just don’t care about learning, period. They are sitting in class because it is expected of them, sometimes by their parents, or society, or because it is a means to an end (a degree), etc. Regardless, if they have made the decision that they are not going to apply themselves, then I think there is little the instructor can do to change this. If they cannot entertain themselves with technology, they will just do so in other ways, such as sleeping, drawing, having private conversations, or, as most commonly happens, just hiding their devices.

    The students we are talking about engaging and are worried about being distracted by others are the students who see the value in their education. I am not going to repeat my blog post, which can be found at the link provided below, but while some of these students may be distracted by others being on their technology, others (such as me) have found they need their laptops or phones to be good learners. The students all have different problems, and the solution is not a one-size-fits-all ban on electronics that attempts to solve the problem for a select group of students while ignoring the needs of the others. There is one thing this group has in common: their recognition of the value of their education. Some care more strongly about it than others, but as long as the student has some desire to learn, a solution can be found. Devices are always going to be around and will always be a distraction, even after graduation. It is the instructor’s job to work with the students to overcome their problem of distraction. It is the student’s job to take control of their own education and determine ways to overcome their problem, as others such as I have found that laptops help them overcome their problems.

    Here is a link to my blog post to provide some background and a more thorough discussion of the topic:

    Austin Garren

  4. Steven Hoagland

    Hello, thanks for sharing your post! I really appreciated the honesty with which you wrote – I could sense the passion for your work and respect the fact that you take teaching seriously. I especially enjoyed your engagement with the opening question of your last paragraph: “is it more important for the instructor or the student to be comfortable in the classroom?” (quoting you from your post above). To get at this directly, I would actually rephrase the question to the students and ask “Why are you [the student] here in my [the teacher’s] class?” We might get a range of responses depending on what type of class we are teaching (undergraduate vs. graduate and required vs. elective). However, I think the appropriate assumption to make as a teacher is that the students are there to learn – and not just learn for learnings sake, but to learn something specific that may help them in their future careers. Therefore, it is not the teacher’s job to make the students feel comfortable, but rather to push the students to engage with the material (even if it’s outside their comfort zone) and to learn it. The fact that the students are there to learn from the teacher puts the teacher in the driver’s seat and gives the teacher the authority to make decisions about the best learning environment for the students. All that to say I think you have made a good assessment and that bending to the pressures of the students for the sake of their comfort would be doing them a disservice in the long run. Thanks again for sharing!

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