Our Students, Their Phones

– Melissa K. Downes and Jeanne M. Slattery

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Jeanne Slattery and Melissa Downes

We’re at that point of the term where we’re just trying to get successfully to the finish line: happy to see some of our students finishing strong, worried about others who have panicked, disengaged, or disappeared, and wondering about some of the choices and perceptions of others. (Do you really think turning in three assignments out of a required ten is a wise choice?). With very little time left, there’s only so much more we can do this term to help our students learn the skills and content they need.

In some ways, we are already looking ahead to next semester.

Both  of us believe there are fundamental skills students need to develop, including how to read more deeply and effectively, practice serious reflection and metacognition, sustain ideas in writing over paragraphs or pages, work effectively together, and choose strong sources worth using. There are moments when we believe our task is growing increasingly more difficult. One factor that we consider important is our students’ use of smartphones and social media. However, we are willing to believe that there are ways that those technologies that currently distract them also increase other skill sets. Even more, the same technologies that distract them may be resources we can use to help them learn the critical thinking, literacy, composition, and research skills they need.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, let’s think about what our students actually do with their phones.

Almost three-quarters of teens (73%) have a smartphone (Lenhart, 2015). Twenty-one percent of the general population report being on their cell phones “almost constantly” (Perrin, 2015). See Figure 1. Not surprisingly, people who are younger (18-29 year-olds, 36%) are more likely to be on their phones than other age groups (Perrin, 2015). Black and Hispanic teens were significantly more likely to be on the Internet “almost constantly” than White teens – respectively, 34 and 32%, as opposed to 19% of White teens (Lenhart, 2015). Teens with cell phones reported sending or receiving 30 text messages per day, although girls sent more than boys, and older girls sent more than younger ones (Lenhart, 2015).

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Figure 1. 21% of people surveyed reported using their cell phones “almost constantly” (Perrin, 2015).

When we consider our students specifically, the numbers become even more interesting. Some of Melissa’s students did primary research at Clarion University on cell phone use. One student group interviewed students about their cell phone use. Nine of 24 students reported sending more than 60 texts per day (Christensen, Jenkins, Goyak, & McGuire, 2016). Another student group surveyed their peers, concluding that students believe that cell phone use should be allowed, even though they also recognized that it interferes with grades earned (Couzzens, Faulkner, Roda, & Stello, 2016). See Table 1.

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Table 1. Student survey (N=20) of technology use by Melissa’s students (Couzzens et al., 2016).

These findings are similar to those reported in the published literature. Over half of students surveyed (56%) believe that cell phones should be allowed in the classroom (Pettijohn, Frazier, Rieser, Vaughn, & Hupp-Wilds, 2015). Do cell phones help our students learn? Harman and Sato (2011) reported that frequency of text messaging  was negatively correlated with QPA, while the number of phone calls made was not.

Our questions: What do these data mean in terms of helping our students engage with the subject, with their professors, and with each other? How do we all keep this generation motivated for learning? What can we do differently – and, we hope, better – next year? How can we help all our students build those skills we consider fundamental to academic and career success?

As our students say, technology isn’t going to go away. Given this, what can we do to be more thoughtful in our response to their use of technology? Perhaps, if you can’t beat them, join them.

This summer, at our Re-Boot Boot Camp (August 10-11, 2016), we will be considering ways of helping such students learn more effectively with and without their phones. As Ms. Scholar has argued previously, how can we meet our students where they are, while also helping them develop the skills – technological and otherwise – that they will need to be successful in the future? See you there!


Christensen, A., Jenkins, T., Goyak, C., & McGuire, M. (2016). Technology @ Clarion. Unpublished manuscript.

Couzzens, C., Faulkner, J., Roda, B., & Stello, B. (2016). Technology and college students: Beneficial or detrimental to their academic careers. Unpublished manuscript.

Harman, B. A., & Sato, T. (2011). Cell phone use and grade point average among undergraduate university students. College Student Journal, 45, 544-5xx.

Lenhart, A. (2015). Mobile access shifts social media use and other online activities. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/09/mobile-access-shifts-social-media-use-and-other-online-activities/

Perrin, A. (2015). One-fifth of Americans report going online ‘almost constantly.’ Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/08/one-fifth-of-americans-report-going-online-almost-constantly/

Pettijohn, T. F., Frazier, E., Rieser, E., Vaughn, N., & Hupp-Wilds, B. (2015). Classroom texting in college students. College Student Journal, 49, 513-516.

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and sees herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill. Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice will be coming out this fall. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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