Managing Phones In The College Classroom With Positive Reinforcement

  • Alanna Harvey
  • 26 September 2019
  • 06:52 PM

This article explores my interview with Dr. Brandon Whittington from Jefferson College, as we discussed his research paper, Benefits of a Voluntary Cell Phone Abstinence Intervention in General Psychology Courses, published in the Teaching of Psychology journal.


When Brandon Whittington began teaching in 2015, he noticed classroom behavior that many of his colleagues had talked about, but hadn’t really experienced yet himself. He’d been in grad school in the mid-2000’s, well before Instagram, social media and texting had become a staple in the college classroom. “Like many instructors, I had a lot of frustration with the amount of cell phone use in class,” he remembers. “It was distracting for me, and quite frustrating actually.”

A former school psychologist, the Psychology Instructor wanted to find a solution to this problem that he and so many of his colleagues were experiencing — but he wanted to do things a bit differently. “Many instructors used some form of punitive measure,” he explains, like asking students to leave the classroom or deducting points. “So I started thinking about other ways to solve this problem.”

Phone abstinence research begins

He began his research in 2017, which sought to confirm that positive reinforcement is a plausible solution to in-class phone use. Inspired by his colleagues' research which successfully implemented differential reinforcement rather than punitive measures, Brandon’s study required that students put their phones away from the beginning until the end of class.

“We have a tendency to want to punish undesirable behaviors, and often overlook teaching or reinforcing desired behaviors,” he says. “Differential reinforcement teaches the desired behavior.” Those who participated in his study by abstaining from their phones would earn extra credit toward their final grade — but they’d have to commit to the entire semester to get the points. This method seemed to work well. “I was surprised by the enthusiasm and participation,” he recalls. “No more than two students per class chose not to participate.”

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Similar to his colleagues, Brandon’s research validated something psychologists already knew: “When you reinforce the desired behavior, the undesired behavior naturally tends to go down,” he explains. “But I think (my research) provides further evidence for another option, that one of the potential solutions to this problem is to reinforce abstinence from your device.”

How phones get in the way

In addition to reducing undesired behavior, which in this case was cell phone use in class, Brandon says his most statistically significant finding was not so expected. By abstaining from using their phones, students appeared to connect with one another more deeply. “Phones really limit or distract us from interacting with our peers and classmates,” he says. “As educators, we’re primarily interested in grades and GPA’s, but there’s a lot of room to look at how interactions have been affected by phone use.”

He remembers how, years ago, you would walk into a classroom and people would be chatting and talking. “You walk into a classroom now and everyone’s sitting there staring at their screens,” he laughs. “But that’s one of the key benefits of thinking about our device use and when it might be limiting us from connecting with others.”

Like many instructors, Brandon also believes that phone use in class is not just one student’s problem. “Anything that divides your attention is going to compromise your own ability to focus,” he says. “But it’s not just your own ability. It could compromise someone else’s ability to focus too.”  

He explains that past student surveys have shed light on this particular problem, where even those who do their best to pay attention get distracted by their peers. “They can see people on Snapchat, they can see the filters they’re putting on their pictures, and the screen flashing from the corner of their eye,” he explains. “Students will say, ‘Hey, I want to focus, but the people around me are distracting me.’”

I ask about the root of this problem, and why it’s become so prevalent today compared to years ago. “People talk about how great it was in the past, but I’m always skeptical of how accurate their memory is of these wonderful engaged classrooms and that cell phones have ruined everything,” he laughs. “Although cell phones are a recent challenge, minimizing student distractions and increasing engagement are not new issues.”

How instructors can help solve the problem

Brandon goes on to explain why it’s important that instructors teach students how to think critically about their phone use and its impact on their education. “There’s a role for instructors, particularly Psychology instructors, to teach students how to learn effectively, and how the mind works,” he says. “Telling students ‘Don’t use your phone, it’s bad,’ is not going to be terribly effective. Helping them understand why and exploring their own behavior allows us to hopefully make more meaningful change. If they make decisions for themselves, it’s more powerful than just obeying authority.”

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He also recognizes that students in college are facing particularly unique challenges — they’re in a developmental transition, and adjusting to the new demands of college life. “But there’s this illusion of invulnerability at times,” he says, describing how students may know their phone use is distracting, but fall prey to the personal fable that it’s more distracting to others and not themselves. “That’s why we need to educate students on these things.”

As a Pyschology Instructor and researcher, Brandon wants to take on the responsibility to teach his students the importance of phone abstinence. “We all have to learn how to manage our devices. They help us in many ways, but we also have to think about how they’re distracting us,” he explains. “Spending six or eight hours on your phone, the equivalent of an entire workday, will impair you on the job market, it will impair your relationships, and I think there are benefits of thinking critically about our phone use.”

Relieving the pressure to always be 'on'

One other anecdotal finding Brandon describes from his research came as a surprise. His colleague overheard one of Brandon's students talking about how she'd asked her friends not to expect a response during his class period because she wouldn't be using her phone. His colleague described it as though the student was relieved to be disconnected.

“There’s this pressure to respond, and some students felt this sort of burden lifted. They have an excuse that they don’t have to respond because they’re participating in this project,” he describes. “Many of us in our day to day lives feel the same pressure. When we have a notification we check it, when we have a message we respond, but I thought it's interesting that not being on your phone can actually relieve this pressure, especially for students.”


Brandon-WhittingtonDr. Whittington is a nationally certified school psychologist and a licensed professional counselor in the state of Missouri. Prior to joining the faculty at Jefferson College, Dr. Whittington practiced as a school psychologist and professional counselor in several public school districts and community mental health settings. Dr. Whittington’s research interests include the psychology of religion and the scholarship of teaching and learning. He regularly presents his work at local and national conferences and looks to involve Jefferson College students in the research process, both as participants and student researchers.