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One teacher's solution to cell phones in class: Extra credit to relinquish them

Local writer and college instructor Rick Diguette discusses his strategy for limiting cell phone use in the classroom -- extra credit if students turn in their phones at the start of class.

What do you think? I know some of you will contend students should not have to be bribed to limit their cellphone use; they should have enough self-discipline to put the dang things away in class. But I find no one can put down a phone. I see adults constantly checking their phones every few minutes.

(By the way, a note to Rick that will make sense when you read his column: Thanks for putting in all that time on this piece.)

By Rick Diguette

Almost two years ago I began giving my students five extra credit points if they agreed to turn in their cellphones at the beginning of each class. I was following the lead of Louise Katz, a psychology professor at a college in Tennessee. After giving her students this option and then asking them to evaluate its effectiveness, she found almost 70 percent believed their ability to concentrate in class had dramatically improved. That was good enough for me.

Concentration is to learning what muscles are to weightlifting: without the first, you can’t do the second very well. Cellphones are the ultimate distraction: they divide our attention and impede our ability to concentrate on the task at hand. When they ring, vibrate, or play “Drunken Monkey” that says someone wants us, and it’s always nice to be wanted. I would even venture to say that in just a few short years these gadgets may become mankind’s new best friend.

The cellphone’s myriad applications can also make it seem as if everything is now so much easier to do.  Basic tasks like paying a bill, making a reservation, buying something you don’t need and can’t afford ― even ending a relationship ― can be accomplished in less time than it took to read this sentence.  The writing of that sentence took considerably longer, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In addition to making daily life easier to navigate, the cellphone is subtly changing the way people think about time. Now that so many things can be accomplished in a matter of seconds, the list of other things that need speeding up seems to get longer by the minute.  And therein lies the problem, because not everything can or should be done quickly.

Take the writing of this column for example.  I’ve now been at work on it for about 60 minutes, and based on past experience I will probably put in another two or three hours before sending it to my editor.  So that means I will devote between three and four hours to collecting my thoughts, composing sentences, and organizing all of them into an Op/Ed piece of about 600 words. None of that would be possible if I allowed my phone to distract me.

You obviously need more than the ability to concentrate to do something like this. I’ve spent most of my adult life noticing things and reflecting on them, no doubt because the way the world works has always been something of a mystery to me. But those activities ― noticing and reflecting ― take time and exert considerable demands on my attention.

What I’ve noticed about my students is that they think they should always be doing more than one thing at a time. In their world the virtue of multitasking goes almost unquestioned. And because their phones allow them to do different things and be different places simultaneously, they tend to view all activities in that context. What they fail to see is that multitasking can dilute their concentration and become a form of distraction.

Since I began to offer my students extra credit for relinquishing their cellphones, not one class has turned down the offer. Many students insist, however, that their phones are not nearly as distracting as I make them out to be. But another thing I’ve noticed is that when one of those phones buzzes or beeps, all eyes quickly turn to the table at the front of the classroom where their best friends await them.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.