While the question is stated with reference to the iPhone, my actual question is about phones in general. Just as there was much talk about the use of Computers in the classroom over the past fifty years (or so), how much talk is there about the use of cellphones in the classroom?

What benefits are there to students being able to access the internet from their fingertips in a math class?

What methods are there for teachers controlling the use of phones for the expressed purpose of academic interests rather than social interests?

How do phones help to forge a mathematical community within the classroom?

How can cellphones be used to dissuade the disruptors from damaging the learning experience of other students?

Is it possible to use phones ethically in the math classroom?

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    $\begingroup$ I don't imagine there are many teachers permitting this yet. It would be tough to police students, keeping them on only permitted apps or web sites . It also would be an issue if not every student had a smart phone. (I wouldn't presume to edit your question, but you might change to the word smartphone.) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ I have tried some smartphone activities, including responding to surveys and looking up a set of publicly available data in a statistics class. My experience is that students have a very hard time staying focused. Imagine trying to teach a classroom full of monkeys how to count, and choosing bananas as the object to practice with... $\endgroup$
    – Andrew
    Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ There is some concern about students sending each other answers. $\endgroup$
    – Amy B
    Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ They don't. They serve mostly to disrupt. Unfortunately, all we have is smartphones, not smartstudents. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 0:42

3 Answers 3


Some anecdotes. I have volunteered with 5th grade math students for a few years. The general rule is, they do not use electronics unless instructed to do so.

We came to a problem where it says to use calculators. But they had not brought their calculators. So one guy pulls out his iPhone, with a calculator app.

There was a lesson on the period of a pendulum; different lengths, different weights, different amplitudes. We needed to measure time. So one guy had an iPhone with a stopwatch app.

There was a lesson on estimation. To begin, we have this drawing with lots of flowers in it, and the students are supposed to think of many possible ways to estimate how many flowers are in the picture. So one guy takes out his iPhone and talks to it: "Siri, look at this picture..."

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    $\begingroup$ I like this answer because it shows that phones have the potential to actually be useful in the classroom and shouldn't be immediately dismissed. It is all about expectations and consequences. I make it very clear at the beginning of the year that phones are only to be used for educational purposes and only when I approve it and if students use phones for other things (texting, music, games, etc.) it will be confiscated. And in general, this approach works very well. As long as you stick to your guns with whatever your policy maybe, phones can be incredibly beneficial to a math class. $\endgroup$
    – celeriko
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 16:47

I teach undergraduate students (ages ~17-22), with class sizes ranging from 10 to 30. I have come to realize that students will have their phones with them no matter what, so it would be unnecessarily punitive of me to try to limit their use. Instead, I have accepted the fact that they're in the classroom and have sought to put them to use whenever I can.

Meanwhile, if a student is going to distract themself with their phone, that's their prerogative; they're nascent adults, so it's really their choice whether they want to be a responsible student. Plus, if I merely see a phone out, how am I to know whether they're texting a friend, checking Facebook, or looking up a definition on Wikipedia? Or checking the arithmetic of a problem we just did? I suppose these reactions might not apply to a classroom with younger students, but with college students, I feel comfortable saying, "It's on you now."

That said, here are some ways that I think phones/laptops/tablets can be helpful in the classroom, from my experiences:

  1. Following along with slides: For all my courses, I post lecture slides well before class time so students can peruse them. I also tell them it would be beneficial to have them open during class so they can follow along and only focus on jotting down important notes in their notebook. They don't have to transcribe everything on the slides because they have them right in front of them. Furthermore, I put a slide counter in the corner, so their notes can say, "March 10, Slide #5: ...."
  2. polleverywhere.com: This is a free site/app for "Clicker" questions. (A paid account lets you use this for >25 people, but with my classes, the free version suffices!) I don't use this in all courses, but when I do, the students really enjoy it. They respond by texting their answer to a given phone #.
  3. Software demonstrations: In some classes, I demonstrate techniques on Excel spreadsheets, or on other software, or websites. Allowing the students to open these sites/programs on their laptops at the same time surely makes sense.
  4. Taking pictures instead of transcribing: I see students taking pictures of the whiteboard all the time! Rather than trying to copy down everything as I write it, and subsequently missing out on what I'm saying out loud, I notice them paying careful attention to my words, and then when I've stepped aside, they snap a photo of the full board.
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    $\begingroup$ i like this answer but the question is about secondary education ( at least that is how it is tagged), in which case, i'm afraid this answer would not be very effective $\endgroup$
    – celeriko
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ @celeriko I only see that now that you mention it. Neither the title nor the body text mentioned that. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 18:49

I have had very good results with banning both iphones and computers in the classroom. Usually I announce that university regulations prohibit the use of iphones, computers, guns, pistols, and invite the students to close them all. Both the attention span and the grades go up.

  • $\begingroup$ I think there are studies which show this. A colleague sent me such a study earlier this semester. Something like 20% of the time their messing with their phone which means 20% of the time their not engaged with the lecture. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 19, 2016 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ @JamesS.Cook, Very interesting. You should consider posting an answer based on this research. Note that a 20% addition to daydreaming usually means much more than a 20% loss in their learning, particularly in math classes, because once they lose track of what is being said it may be hard to get back into it no matter how much the professor tries to recall the necessary material. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ I'll try to find it, I forget who emailed this result, but, I'll try to remember to ask around tomorrow... $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 2:26

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