What’s a Prof to Do When Students Text and Surf in Class?


EL PASO — I do not want to be a technology police officer in the classroom yet I sometimes feel like one. I am troubled by the number of students using cell phones to text and laptops to surf the web during my lectures.

This seems to be even more of an issue in larger and bigger classrooms. As UTEP’s student population grows (over 20,000 at the start of this academic year), each semester there seem to be more students enrolling in my lecture classes, and more instances of technology disrupting my classroom teaching.

Text Messaging in Class

Early in the semester, actually on day one and week one of each class, students and I go over the course syllabi and we review the goals and objectives for each class. This is the time where I usually explain expectations in my courses, including the use of technology. My syllabus notes that the university supports the use of technology to facilitate learning. However, I ask students to turn off their phones or to put them on vibrate. But now that cell phones are used for texting and also surfing the web my policy doesn’t seem to be working.

How is a professor to deal with the use of cell phones for texting and the use of laptops for chatting, surfing, and getting connected to email and social networking sites, while trying to teach? Should I be concerned whether students want to use their time to text or chat? When does the use of technology become my problem? Is it when it becomes disruptive to other students? Is it when it is disruptive to me?

While lecturing in a large classroom of 100 students, I use a portable microphone that allows me to move around the room. By going up and down the aisles, I can clearly see who is using their cell phones and their laptops for surfing.

Just this week, as I was lecturing, I saw several students actively texting. What would you have done in this situation? On one occasion, I took the phone away and slipped it into my pocket and returned it after the end of class. As I walked back to my office later, I was furious that I had to deal with the issue of technology etiquette in my classes. This has not been a problem for me in the past or when I teach in smaller classrooms. But as class sizes have grown, I have had to move to a building with larger, less intimate classrooms where it’s easier to satisfy the urge to text or surf without being noticed by the instructor.

Is technology a barrier to learning or is it a tool? Should I even care whether or not students are using technology to communicate with outsiders during my class, even though they are not “speaking out loud?”

According to Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist who has focused on intercultural communication issues, human beings communicate in many ways, many of these include our interpretations of time and space. I have read somewhere that approximately 70 percent of what we communicate is non-verbal.

So what does the active use of technology in the classroom communicate to me as a professor and to other classmates? As a professor, I don’t want to have to focus or spend time on these distractions. I want to focus on my lectures and on my students’ responses to their readings, to the topics we are covering, and to each other.

Some might suggest I simply ignore the use of technology in my classes, others suggest I employ more group interaction in class, while others suggest humor to diffuse the use of technology. I simply can’t ignore it because I consider that texting and surfing the web during my lectures is inappropriate and disrespectful behavior. The fact is that I do use group work in class and vary this approach with lectures. I love the idea of humor, although at times it can be appropriate but it can also backfire when it’s used to “shame” people.

I don’t want to “shame” people into behaving well in a college classroom. Besides going over classroom policies, what is a professor to do in a society that is growing addicted to technology at work and in everyday life?

Some cities and states have banned the use of cell phones and texting while driving. What is next? A ban of cell phones while learning?

Editor’s note: Dr. Gina Núñez is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at UT El Paso





  1. Richard Sapien on

    Just kick any students who are using their cell phones out of the classroom. Those students are not contributing to the lecture or discussions and are not benefiting from your presentation. You would be doing a huge disservice to yourself, the students using their cell phones, and the rest of the class if you allowed the cell phone users to stick around. Plus, after the first student is kicked out, I guarantee you the number of cell phone users will drop dramatically.

    You honestly lose nothing by kicking cell phone users out, except distractions.

  2. Zita Arocha

    I encourage everyone who teaches to read “Digital immigrants, digital natives” which argues that’s it’s silly for teachers to fight the growing trend of technology multitasking and to find ways to incorporate the trend into teaching strategies.
    The author makes a good point but I still think we should come up with a universal set of protocols for the use of personal technology in the classroom.

  3. I’m glad to see a teacher’s stand against students using technology in class. Teachers, college professors should prohibit the use of text messaging during class lectures. Also, perhaps put a ban on social networking sites and chatting while lectures are going on. There is time outside the classroom to use these technologies. There is too much time and money invested in paying for the class itself. This precious time when a college professor is lecturing students should not be spent texting or chatting away.

  4. I really like the fresh perpective you did on the issue. Really was not expecting that when I started off studying. Your concepts were easy to understand that I wondered why I never looked at it before. Glad to know that there’s an individual out there that definitely understands what he’s discussing. Great job!

  5. As a student myself, I pay for both my phone bill and my college tuition. I don’t see that a prof has any right to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do with my phone. Odds are, the students that want to pay attention will, and those who don’t will find other means of distraction, with or without a phone. I do agree though, students using cell phones, in class, is a very disrespectful behavior. Unfortunatley, many students don’t pay for their own tuition, and therefore, I believe, that they don’t appreciate the education they are recieving. This could be a factor as to why so many students choose to text, surf, etc, in class. Then again, I believe that if the prof has me so actively engaged in the class that checking my phone might become the last thing on my mind. I can definetly vouch that boring class lectures lead to a higher use in cell phone acitivity.

    So what should you do? I would just continuously remind your students that you don’t appreciate the use of technology in class. Maybe even ask them how they would like it, if you just stopped in mid-lecture and started texting someone. (I’m sure that I wouldn’t apprecite that.) And, perhaps, try to get the class as engaged in the lecture as possible.

  6. This past semester, I used a new method that has worked nicely. I review my course syllabus on the first day of class with my students. The syllabus states there is a zero-tolerance cell phone use policy in my class and students will be dropped from the class if they fail to adhere to this policy. I photocopy this portion of the syllabus and keep a small stack of paper with this policy in my pocket as I lecture throughout the semester. When I find a student texting in class, I quietly put the photocopied texting policy on the student’s desk. As class is dismissed, I speak with the student and let them know that this was a warning, and the next time the student will be given a drop form. In all but one case, the students stopped texting in class. As for the student who did not heed my warning, I watched her text through another lecture without giving her any warning. The next lecture I observed her texting I gave her a drop form.

  7. Jroberts—-you sound like someone who thinks education is a commodity you buy in walmart—a classroom is not you bed room where you can do as you wish. Paying tuition or for your phone does not give you a right to use it when you want, how you want or in any disruptive manner. Would you argue with flight crew that because it is your phone, they can’t tell you it is unsafe and must be put awy during take off and landing. Similarly, there are others who paid to receive an education and you have no business disrupting the professor by texting or whatever else you do with your phone. I hope you don’t also say you should get an A because you paid for the course.

  8. When students text in my classroom, I find it extreemely, disrespectful and distracting. As a college professor, I’m paid to teach students with goals of success in the workforce. In my opinion, school is a job. Good work habits start before you start a career, they start in the classroom. If I accept unacceptable behavior in the classroom such as texting, I’m not preparing my students for the workforce.

    When my students engage in disruptive behaviors during class such as texting, I warn them a few times. If my warnings don’t stop the behavior, I give a quiz during the next class. After a couple of quizes, the behavior improves. Peer pressure is a wonderful thing.

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