All Phones to Classroom Mode


By now most teachers have developed a keen eye for students texting in class. Cell phones are an obvious distraction for students, and two economics professors have teamed up to try to measure the problem’s effect on grades.

UT assistant professor of economics Richard Murphy, worked with Louis-Philippe Beland, assistant professor of economics at Louisiana State University, to create the study. They examined 91 city high schools in England that had instituted mobile phone bans in their schools, affecting more than 130,000 students.

“Mobile phones are ubiquitous,” Murphy says. “Lots of teachers were saying they were bad for classrooms, but there was no real proof.”

The proof came: In schools that instituted phone bans, Murphy and Beland found 6.41 percentage points of a standard deviation improvement in grades, compared to schools that did not ban phones. Students with typically low grades showed even better results, with a 14.23 percentage gain. Students with disabilities and those who qualified for free lunches showed similar improvement.

“I was surprised to see that high-achieving students were not affected,” Murphy says. “We’re learning that mobile phones are not disruptive, just distractive—so they’re affecting the individual, but not the group as a whole.”

Murphy says high-achieving students may already be able to focus better, while low-achieving students may struggle more with distractions. He says some schools try to ignore them, but leaving cell phones unregulated can exacerbate learning inequalities.

Age also factors into the study; as a group, 14-year-olds own fewer cell phones and are less impacted by a phone ban, whereas 16-year-olds are far more distracted by phones. The study covered school trends between 2001 and 2013, and Murphy says the impact could be seen year to year.

“If you look at two schools within a single year, one that introduces a ban in 2005 and one in 2006, the one from 2005 was already ahead in grades by 2006,” he says.

However, Murphy doesn’t recommend banning phones outright. He suggests mobile phones could be incorporated into learning and used in a helpful way—though no such use was found in the schools studied.

Murphy believes similar results would be found in the United States, though only 73 percent of American teens own a cell phone compared to 90 percent of English teens.

And what about UT students? Murphy has faith in Longhorns: “They’re probably more high achieving and can focus better by the time they’re in college.”

Illustration by Melissa Reese.


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