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Surviving Class minus Your Cell Phone

BU lecturer made students do that. Surprise: they liked it

Joelle Renstrom, Lecturer at Boston University College of General Studies poses with a device she uses to lock up student cell phones during class

CGS lecturer Joelle Renstrom confiscated students’ cell phones during her spring 2017 classes as an experiment. Many were annoyed at first, but at term’s end, many admitted they were fine without their phones.

Strange but true: A teacher forced students to lock away their phones, every class, all class long, for an entire semester. And Joelle Renstrom’s students actually liked it.

So-called “digital distraction” is a big issue for professors (and teachers everywhere). Studies show that 80 percent of college students text during class, and most practice “high-tech doodling.”

So during the 2017 spring semester, Renstrom, a College of General Studies lecturer in rhetoric (whose teaching interests include futuristic technology in science fiction, incidentally), required the 30 students in her two classes to place their phones in a locked pouch, openable only by touching the pouch to a magnetic key on her desk.

“I didn’t care if they put the pouches on the desk, in their pockets, or if they clutched them tight,” she writes about the experiment for the digital magazine Aeon. She surveyed students’ reactions to the experiment at the beginning of the term and at the end.

At semester’s start, a large minority of students, 37 percent, were upset or angered by the policy. At the end, that complaining coterie dropped to 14 percent, with 39 percent reporting that they were “pleasantly surprised,” “relieved,” or “fine” with being phone-free for an hour in the day.

“Not only are they less dependent on a phone, it actually might feel good to not have the option to check it,” Renstrom summarizes. BU Today spoke with Renstrom, who also has an appointment in the College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program, about the whys and implications of her experiment.

BU Today: When did you get your first cell phone?

Renstrom: Right after 9/11. I moved to New York on September 8, 2001. Three days later, everything fell apart, but I couldn’t call my parents, who I knew would be freaking out. You couldn’t get through on a landline to anybody. It took a number of hours for me to get ahold of them, and I was like, maybe a cell phone would be a good idea.

I still don’t have a smartphone. I don’t want one. I would be checking student emails from the bar when I was trying to have fun.

Are you going to take away phones in all your classes now?

Not this semester. I have far more students than I have pouches right now. I’m thinking about whether or not I want to roll it out for the spring, where I teach a seminar on robots and AI and advanced technology. We actually talk about the addictive properties of cell phones, so it’s relevant to the class.

The older I get, the more I think you do need to be able to make your own choices about this kind of thing. If you want to look at your cell phone during class, especially if you’re doing it frequently enough, it’s not going to bode well for you. It was definitely one of the takeaways: if there’s a change in your mind-set just from that limited experiment, what would implementing this in your life do?

A magnetized pouch that Boston University lecturer Joelle Renstrom uses to lock up student cell phones during class

Why do students mistakenly think they need their cell phone?

Fear of missing out is a massive one. This has become compounded by social media and the expectation of an instant response. When you ask a student, What’s going to happen in the next 50 minutes that you’re going to miss on your phone? they’re never thinking about emergencies; they’re thinking, A friend might text me and then I’m not texting him or her back—what are they going to think about that? And maybe, Someone wants to go to lunch and I’m not going to know.

We’ve raised a generation of neurotics?

Studies show that anxiety levels in teens are higher than they’ve ever been. There’s a term called techno-stress to describe the frenzy of what happens when you are expected to respond immediately. Not just, What fun stuff am I missing? but if I’m new on the job and my boss has emailed me at some ungodly hour and I don’t respond, Am I going to get penalized for that?

If you can get the message at any hour, that means you can respond at any hour, and if you can respond anytime, then you should respond anytime. Students are going to see their parents doing it, they see every single person on the subway doing it, they’re all doing it.

To what degree is this addictive behavior promoted by marketing and consumerism?

I don’t think it can be underestimated, especially social media. There is addiction dopamine-feedback loop stuff going on. Studies show that that’s what happens in the brain in people using social media. I post something on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and people “like” it or they “heart” it or they retweet it, and I feel popular, I feel like people are paying attention to me. And when that buzz wears off a couple hours later, I’ve got to tweet something else.

Your article mentioned that students don’t read anything printed on paper. Do you assign only online texts?

I put everything online. I try to avoid having them buy a coursepack, just ’cause they’re superexpensive. But studies show that it’s definitely better to read on paper, and I have students who say they know they’re better when they read on paper. The tendency to skim online is greater. You read things faster. The lack of annotation is really a problem. If you write notes in the margin, you remember better.

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

10 Comments on Surviving Class minus Your Cell Phone

  • Joan Bragar on 11.14.2017 at 7:08 am

    Bravo. All professors should try this. For over a decade I’ve taught a course at the School of Public Health on “Leadinf for Results”. In which I ask students to put away all electronics, including laptops.

    Result: real conversation/Dialogue occurs in every class and students report that they look forward to coming to class. Many have formed lasting friendships. We have a great deal of laughter and insight when we are all fully engaged in the same conversation. They take reflection notes on paper. I can not recommend this approach highly enough. Try it! You might really enjoy it.

  • Catherine Caldwell-Harris on 11.14.2017 at 7:14 am

    How does an instructor obtain the pouches? Thanks for advice.

    • Joelle Renstrom on 11.14.2017 at 7:41 am

      I’m happy to put you in touch with YONDR if you want to give it a try!

  • Logic Rules on 11.14.2017 at 9:32 am

    When I taught at another university: I had a policy that if a cell phone rang while inside class that the student was dismissed from the class. If it happened twice, the student was barred from class for the rest of the semester.
    The university was receptive to the policy.

    Cell phones has options (vibrate).

    • Joelle Renstrom on 11.14.2017 at 10:55 am

      Good policy! Over time I’ve leaned toward trying to avoid stopping class to deal with a disruptive phone/student. Disciplining a student while you’re trying to teach or interrupting the class to deal with someone’s phone can be tough, especially if the student protests. I find that the pouches preempt that kind of situation and allow for a more seamless classroom experience overall. But this isn’t a one size fits all situation and I’m glad you found something that works for you!

  • Just another BU parent on 11.14.2017 at 12:02 pm

    Bravo to this instructor and a qualified bravo to the coverage. This should start a much broader conversation at BU where we don’t necessarily need policies as much as a wider conversation. If one looks at the books by Nicholas Carr, it seems like society has caught on to this issue and is ahead of the ivory tower. Perhaps we can start by asking how Joelle Renstrom’s policy helps prepare students for the workforce and further study; the immediate benefit to her class should be just one aspect of her policy.

  • BU Employee on 11.14.2017 at 12:44 pm

    While I realize banning cellphones for some is de rigueur, there are just as many studies out there that show there are benefits to certain phone-based technologies in the classroom, when well-regulated. Instructors are free to make their own decisions based on what they feel is right for them and their students, but caution must be taken not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Jose Artigas on 11.15.2017 at 8:56 pm

    I ban all electronic devices in my classes. Probably b/c I don’t react harshly or impose penalties, at least 1 student must be asked to put theirs away each class. I just ask quietly & politely, sometimes wittily, but avoid getting emotionally involved in the matter. Students take better notes writing by hand & remember more. Yes, there are in-class uses for phones, but it’s too much trouble regulating use — too many non-educational temptations!

  • Andrew Wolfe on 11.16.2017 at 12:41 pm

    Great article. I think I may do something like this in my classes.

  • Ana on 09.24.2018 at 11:35 pm

    In my classes in a Korean university, I used a system where students voluntarily turned off their phones, put them in a plastic bin, and passed me a ticket with their name on it. At the beginning, I explained the voluminous research in favor of doing this. They got a few points extra credit for consistently abiding by the policy. As a result, I saw much more engaged students, and many of them thanked me at the end of the semester. Now I’m at an American university, and considering trying it here.

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