Assuring Classroom Listening and Focus: The Need to Prohibit Electronics

Does a leading manufacturer of cars, Ford, concern itself with whether assembly workers have efficient equipment to conduct their jobs most productively?

Does a leading software developer, Microsoft, worry whether programmers have quality code and application code features to efficiently perform their jobs?

Does a restaurant, Outback Steakhouse, concern itself with whether the ovens and preparation areas are efficient to allow food orders to arrive to customers promptly?

Do university administrators and professors worry whether their students are being distracted by the use of laptops computers, PDAs or other electronic devices (hereafter referred to as “electronic devices”) that curtail listening and focus in the classroom?

Based on statistics later presented in this article, less than 10% of instructors are fostering a learning environment that is productive by prohibiting the use of electronic devices. Why are most administrators and professors so lackadaisical about creating an educationally efficient environment analogous to industry’s keen focus on process, worker and equipment productivity? I really do not know the answer, but I can assure you that students need strict policies forbidding the use of electronic devices.

The possible argument for allowing laptops in the classroom to take notes is a ludicrous one. After all aren’t students using laptops to be productive taking notes? Wrong!

In supporting this classroom policy let me first draw on two of my own eyebrow-raising experiences. Later I will follow with some very intriguing research that has been conducted. I realize that there are some university courses that have computer workstations at every class desk and classroom content relies on electronic device usage. These situations are not intended to be addressed by this article.

Observing from the Back Row of College Business Classes

Four years ago before I started teaching college courses I wanted to observe effective professors in the classroom as I hadn’t been in a classroom since I was a graduate business student 30 years earlier. I received recommendations from a couple of business school department heads and sat in the very back of the room and watched. The most immediate observation was that nearly 50% of the students had laptops up and running; however, zero percent were using them for the intended usage of taking notes. Instead, and maybe to be expected, they were surfing the Internet, sending emails, playing games, etc. (note: prior to students now checking out their Facebook account). Besides those students using their laptops for unproductive reasons, what were many of the other 50% of the students doing who didn’t have laptops? Answer:  Many were paying more attention to what is on their neighbor’s computer screen than focusing on their professor’s lecture.

Experiencing the Distractions and Inconsideration in Attending Recent Presenter Sessions

I just returned from a Web 2.0 Expo conference in New York City that was extremely worthwhile with five concurrently running presentations to choose from in moderate-size meeting rooms (attendance ranging between 50-150 people in each presentation). The majority of attendees were in the 25 – 35 year age group. Despite sitting in the first two rows I constantly experienced:

  • Constant noise distractions from attendees banging loudly on their laptops taking “notes.” This seemed peculiar because the presenter’s slides were going to be available through SlideShare. I could see a reason to take down periodic notes but why attempt to re-type portions of the slides when they are going to be provided? I concluded one of two things were happening:

             <> They were not listening to the presenter and distracted doing something else.

             <> They were unable to just sit and listen without doing something, so recomposing lecture slides fulfilled attendees’ needs to keep occupied.

  •  Constant visual distractions as many laptops could be seen in my sight line towards the speaker and projection screen. I found it very disruptive to my concentration to see people’s computer screens and hands constantly changing in my direct sight line to both the speaker and projection screen.

I was dumfounded by the lack of consideration attendees had for one another and the presenter. The second session I attended the speaker was “off-the charts” totally engaging me. I was now in the first row to minimize possible distraction. Two people over from me sat a woman directly in front of the speaker’s podium. I was doubly distracted by her banging away so loudly on her laptop and her rambunctious hand motions visually making it difficult to concentrate on the speaker. I asked the person between us to ask her to “calm” down and he sharply retorted back, “She’s got a deadline to make, layoff.” 

Very Intriguing Research on Laptop and Cell Phone Usage

Some of the most noteworthy findings from a 2010 article entitled “The Usage of Mobile Technologies during Lectures” by Ronen Hammer and Miky Ronen are summarized below. Realize that their study references were conducted in the 2006-2008 period before PDA advanced game and texting features, and the surging Facebook era. So as you read these findings realize that student distractions are even worse than these findings.


  • Extensive laptop usage for non-academic purposes: 91% of students use laptops in class for activities that are not related to the lesson.
  • Students admit that laptop usage by themselves and others are the two top distraction factors in the classroom: A study asked students at the completion of a course were factors that might have interfered with their ability to learn lecture materials. The two highest responses were: (i) laptop use by fellow students, (ii) interference caused by one’s own laptop.
  • Students underestimate the distraction factor of laptop usage on others close by. Whereas 90% of the instructors believe laptop usage distracts other students’ attention during lectures, only 44% of the students believe this. This is in sharp contrast to the agreement that laptop usage by the user is distracting, which is believed by 90% of both students and instructors.

Cell Phones

  • Students paying attention to cell phones during class time: Less than one percent of students shut down cell phones during class time; 93% leave on quiet mode and six percent allow audible signal to activate.
  • Students conceal cell phone usage from professor: 83% of students try to hide their activities with the cell phone from the instructor.
  • Many students answer non-urgent calls and leave the classroom: Almost half the students will answer calls that are not urgent and will leave the class to do so.


  • Multi-tasking diminishes classroom performance: There is a long tradition of cognitive science studies that demonstrate that human mental resources are limited and that there is a performance decrement under divided attention (“multi-tasking”). A recent study concludes that only 2.5% of the population can successfully multi-task without having adversely impacting performance.

Classroom Policies and Expectations

  • Only “7% of instructors forbid laptop usage during class time.”
  • Forty-three percent of instructors do mind that students use laptops during class but have no choice but to accept it as part of reality.
  • The mobile culture has changed student and instructor expectations. In prior decades instructors would usually not tolerate newspaper reading or Walkman usage and take disciplinary actions. However social conventions are rapidly changing involving mobile devices. Students today feel it is their right to be multi-taskers during lectures and instructors might be quite confused by it.

Effects of Mobile Technologies Summarized

  • Being constantly distracted
  • Constant need for external stimulation
  • Shorter attention span
  • Self-centeredness and inconsideration
  • Difficulty to maintain close and intimate relationships

Combine Forbidding Electronic Devices and Providing Detailed Lecture Slides

Minimizing distractions is paramount in the classroom to foster learning productivity which is no different than in the workplace. When Steve Jobs of Apple spearheaded the development of the new and highly innovative Macintosh Computer, the project team was located off premise from headquarters to “minimize corporate distractions.”  Colleges need to view the classroom no differently than the workplace and develop policies and safeguards to assure that productivity is a top objective.

My course syllabus clearly states that electronic devices during class time are not allowed unless there is a reason that is cleared with me individually. In over three years of college business school teaching I have not had one student even approach me on this issue. See free attachment that contains the portion of my syllabus on Classroom Etiquette and Expectations

In conjunction with the objective to eliminate the need for a laptop (or equivalent) to take notes, I provide detailed lecture slides. Providing detailed lecture slides drastically reduces the time required for students to take notes and allows them to focus on absorbing concepts and the application of real-world content. See article entitled, “Providing Detailed Lecture Slides Enhances Educational Experience”.

An Active Classroom Engagement Environment

Active class engagement by the professor can significantly reduce the temptation of students to be distracted by electronic devices and include:

A posting I came across entitled “Cracking Down on Laptops in the Classroom” by Jessica Hart expands upon the importance of creating classroom engagement where Professor Chris Hager of Trinity College comments:

One of the greatest challenges of a professor is to try to create an environment in a classroom where students can find it cool to be intellectual.It is socially cool, and safe, to be behind a laptop. Without laptops, and by stressing the importance of discussion, students are encouraged to be engaged, to take risks, and to be interested in what other people are saying.

Fair and Documented Consequences for Violations

Effective policies need fair and documented consequences. My syllabus offers this suggested progression of consequences, all of which involve the student obtaining written documentation:

  • 1st   Offense:                              Warning
  • 2nd Offense:                              Full class absence (attendance is a portion of their grade) 
  • 3rd  Offence and Forward:  Full two point class deduction each time in their final, cumulative grade

Prohibiting Electronic Devices will Propel Forward a Productive Classroom Learning Environment

A logical conclusion results from combining my simple observations in the classroom and during a national conference along with the extensive research provided by Ronen Hammer and Miky Ronen; electronic devices need to be prohibited to foster learning productivity. Accomplishing this is straightforward but will require administrators to become dedicated leaders and enforcers. Administrators need to develop effective new policies that are consistently expected and implemented in the classroom by all instructors. Without uniform adherence, the professors forbidding electronic devices will come under unfair student scrutiny and receive lower course evaluations.


  1. Dianne Fiedler says:

    I appreciate that you took the time to sit in the back of the class to make these observations. Do you have recommendations of research to determine whether or not use of PDA’s in internships to access data has had the same conclusion?

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