The PLaCE Team (Learning & Teaching Staff Development, PVC-E) regularly receives emails from MQ colleagues asking about various aspects of learning and teaching. Our usual practice is to discuss these at a team meeting, collate our responses, and send them back to the questioner. We’re also sharing these Qs – & our As – more widely in this series of Teche posts. 

A Below are some ideas you could try.

Firstly, we get it – managing mobile phone use in class can be really frustrating. But maybe it’s a chance to look at things differently – perhaps it’s a sign that something else is happening. Often, students aren’t trying to be difficult; they might be struggling to stay engaged or feeling overwhelmed.  

Regard student behaviour as a means for students to communicate something- perhaps something that is useful to know- to the teacher.” Insight from Susan Wallace, Emeritus Professor of Education at Nottingham Trent University. From Managing Behaviour in Higher and Adult Education. 

What might be behind student phone use?

Could students reaching for their phones be a sign of them being overwhelmed or disengaged? Have we been talking for too long? Is it a time to use an activity to help students incorporate what they are learning? As a collegue from MQ School of Education notes:

We can ask ourselves ‘what are we doing to try to outcompete the temptation to pick up the phone?

John De Nobile, Macquarie School of Education

Research finds that the following techniques tend to help with keeping students’ attention.

  • Active learning techniques to keep students engaged
  • Real-life examples and ‘energisers’
  • Flagging the relevance of the content/activity

Tackling phone distractions in real time

Start with the gentle nudge approach 

When you notice a student distracted by their phone, consider these gentle interventions: 

  • Positioning: Moving closer to the source of disruption can naturally curb the behaviour
  • Non-verbal signals: Using eye contact, a raised eyebrow, or subtle head shake
  • Dialogue after class: Perhaps a calm and friendly chat with the student/s after the class might provide insights into the student’s behavior and offer a path to improvement.

OR for frequent phone use…

Try warm, whole-class reminders AND praising desired behaviour. Use inclusive language, like ‘we’ instead of ‘you’. Some useful phrases:

  • “Thank you for being fully present and participating in class today.”
  • “Phones are a big part of our lives, but let’s prioritise our learning for now.”
  • “I know our phones are important, but let’s put them away for now and turn the sound off. You made it all the way here- let’s make the most of it.”
  • “I understand the desire to multitask, especially with so much going on. However, let’s try and give our full attention to today’s topic. Phones should only be used for learning activities.”
  • “On the rare occasion you might need to respond to an urgent message on your phone, please step out of the room.”

Proactive strategies for ditching distractions and embracing learning

To preempt the draw of smartphones, consider the following approaches:

Set clear expectations upfront

Set expectations for learning in your classroom at the beginning of the session and secure student cooperation by clearly defining expected classroom behaviours. One way of doing this could be to invite students to co-create a classroom contract to foster shared understanding and commitment. This is particularly effective for first year students who are recent school leavers.

Consider the alternative – embrace phones!

Embrace the use of devices in class with polls, chat, live quizzes clickers. Read more in this Teche post about selecting the best real-time polling and quiz tools for in-class interaction. In conjunction with using devices in class, you can also request that a period of class time is phone free.

Clarify content relevance

Demonstrating how learning applies in the real world can make lessons more engaging and relevant. Making explicit connections between course content and students’ lives or careers can enhance their interest and focus.

Enlist the help of AI tools to generate engaging ideas

Grab students’ attention by creating memorable explanations to help key concepts stick, a hook for an important topic, an engaging title for your lecture, or a relevant case study or role play. AI tools like ChatGPT can help you come up with ideas to maintain students’ attention. Explore how you can quickly and easily elevate your teaching using ChatGPT with these resources:

Try active learning techniques to keep students engaged in class

Implementing strategies that require active participation can significantly reduce the temptation to reach for the phone. These self-paced modules, available on Workday, are packed full of ideas:

  • Active Learning Starter Pack (45-minutes) covers the basics for implementing active learning in your classroom: popular low-stakes techniques and practical tips on using MQ-supported technologies.
  • Active Learning 2 Advanced (45 minutes) explores more advanced active learning techniques for your classroom plus practical suggestions for tackling common issues with active learning.

Take it further – complete the module

Preventing and managing disruptive behaviour in the classroom is a 60-minute self-paced module in which you will find practical strategies for managing and understanding classroom dynamics to enrich your toolkit for creating engaging learning environments.

Got a question on learning and teaching for us?


Banner image: Vector by eamesBot on Shutterstock
Image of students using phones: Photo by Gorodenkoff on Shutterstock

Posted by L&T Development

The Learning and Teaching Staff Development team works with staff across the University to ensure they are supported to facilitate quality learning for students. This includes offering professional development, contributing to curriculum and assessment design, recognising and rewarding good practice, supporting peer review of teaching, and leading scholarly reflection. Email with questions or requests.

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