Shawnee Mission administrator examines cell phones and ‘divided attention’ in the classroom

Jay Senter - August 6, 2019 9:00 am
Cell phones are ubiquitous in high schools these days. So how can parents and educators make sure they don’t distract from teaching and learning? Photo credit Marco Verch. Used under a Creative Commons license.

A new school year is just days away. And when Shawnee Mission high school students return to the classroom next week, they’ll be bringing hundreds and hundreds of cell phones with them.

SM East Associate Principal Susan Leonard has been thinking a lot about the impact of those devices on the learning environment in recent months. And she says the issue defies easy solutions. Leonard submitted the column below.

What we all need to know about divided attention

By Susan Leonard, PhD

SM East Associate Principal Susan Leonard. File photo by Bruce Mathews.

Dividing attention has become a part of almost all of our lives. We enjoy conversations with friends while quickly checking a text, our calendar or the weather on our phones. We bounce between tasks and I have often wondered myself how on earth anyone lived without a cell phone. We have read that multi-tasking is not really all that we think it is, but in our daily lives we tell ourselves we have it under control. As any addict says to herself, “I could stop if it I wanted to….”, but could I really? And really, is this an addiction that is harming us or is it just helping us to be more efficient anyway?

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For years I have resisted cell phone bans and policies believing more and more that because we are teaching children how to be successful in “the real world”, then removing a real world distraction only prohibits us from helping them to develop the very discipline they will need to thrive in the “real world”. Lately, however, I feel foolish ignoring what the research is telling us about the effects of the current culture of the ubiquitous electronic device. As educators, we must consider how we might create policy, practice or procedural changes that will buffer the negative consequences of cell phone use in the classroom. With technology in the modern classroom being inevitable (and linked to many positive improvements in teaching and learning), achieving a healthy balance and minimizing distractions in our learning environments is critical, and also stubbornly complicated. Learning the skills of self regulation might be the most important part of a student’s success in school (and beyond). In the course of my 20+ years in education, I have asked high achieving students over and over again why they believe they are/were successful in school. I have never had a single young person credit their natural intelligence. It is always their work ethic and, very specifically, their ability to pay attention that they note has made the difference for them. Whether it was choosing a seat away from a friend they knew would tempt them socially, or turning their cell phone off during instruction and study time, many successful students recognize their discipline and ability to self regulate as critical components of their success. Conversely, the students I counsel who struggle to find success are those who habitually disengage from class physically (skipping class, rejecting the given task) or mentally (Netflix, games, cell phones, daydreaming). There are many reasons for why students engage or disengage from class, but studies have proven again and again that the ability to self-regulate is more predictive of academic success than any other measure (Dent, Amy L. 2013). The challenge with establishing rules – and then consequences when those rules are broken – with regard to behaviors linked to a students’ ability to self-regulate, is that they are very hard to enforce and they don’t get to the heart of the matter, which is helping our students build some of the most important skills necessary to be successful.

I have had dozens upon dozens of parents urging me (the school) to ban cell phones. Almost always, these parents argue with their children about cell phone usage at home, but somehow these well intentioned parents think the school can lay down a decree and this problem will be easily solved. I often wonder why these parents who approach me haven’t already banned the phones themselves? Wouldn’t that be easiest? If one is opposed to cell phone usage at school, why allow his or her child to bring the device to school at all? I’ve contemplated the same question myself, and yet my children carry cell phones to school probably for the same reasons so many of our students do: it’s convenient and efficient for me, and in some ways it is teaching them to be responsible and to learn to manage the distraction that will likely be a part of their entire lives. So it seems there is no simple solution to this problem and yet I wholeheartedly agree that it is a problem. I also firmly believe that we will get nowhere with this whole issue if we do not honor our school aged young people as capable of engaging in this debate with us. We did not grow up or learn like they do now and to create policy without their input is misguided and very unlikely to be met with anything beyond ritual compliance (and then only when the teacher is looking), not to mention how keeping up with this would drain teacher and administrative resources. As an academic institution, I want to aim higher and to be realistic with expectations. Real change is made when we thoughtfully engage in discussions, honor each other’s perspectives and consider what we know, what has been proven and how that relates, impacts and interferes with what we set out to accomplish as a high school full of young people with aspirations and hopes for their futures, all of which require learning and achievement.

The modern day classroom has transformed. Divided attention in the 1990s when I was in high school was doing homework for another class, passing a note, or daydreaming. It happened and it affected our ability to recall whatever we had missed while off task. Today, a student’s entire social network and quite literally the world follows him into the classroom. Dividing attention is the norm rather than the exception from time to time. Pew Internet and American Life Project’s recent data showed that 74% of college students used their cell phones during class (Lee, Kim, McDonough, Mendoza and Kim, 2017). And, with these phones on hand, the chances of becoming academically disengaged increases dramatically. Students can and do choose to surf the Internet, check social media accounts, and text message parents, bosses, coaches and friends. We call this multi-tasking, but research indicates that there is a price to pay for the habit. “These nonacademic cell phone uses have often been shown to be detrimental to the learning process, students’ mental well-being, and their grade point average” (Lee, Kim, McDonough, Mendoza and Kim, 2017). The sneaky thing about all of this, however, is that the negative impacts are not always immediately evident. For instance, studies show that if you quiz a student at the end of the hour who was on his cell phone, he likely will do as well as the student who wasn’t. A student probably feels as though he or she is mastering this whole divided attention thing and, as measured by short term recall and comprehension, he or she may be correct. But what the data clearly shows is that “divided attention reduc(es) retention … which impair(s) subsequent unit and final exam performance (Glass, A. & Kang, M. 2018). One of the most important components of retention is repetition. When attention is divided, a student reduces her opportunity for repetition and while she may feel good and believe she has learned something new and is keeping up just fine in class (and is therefore safe to focus on that text message needing an answer), she is in fact cutting off the process by which short term understanding becomes committed to long term learning and retention. Further, post-class study is inherently inferior to classroom instruction because students learn best in a social context (Dunbar & Sutcliffe, 2013), so accessing the notes later to catch up and fill the gaps is not nearly as effective as paying attention in class in the first place. “A critical gap in the ability to devise an instructional strategy to respond to the intrusion of electronic devices into the classroom for recreational, non-academic purposes has been the lack of understanding of the effect of divided attention by some students in the classroom on the comprehension and retention of the lesson by all the students in the classroom” (Glass, A. & Kang, M. 2018). A false confidence is built by short term, low level comprehension and recall and also because class notes are almost always accessible online somewhere in today’s learning climate, making note-taking in class seem unimportant to many students. However, achievement data shows there is simply no substitute for a learner’s undivided attention in the classroom setting.

It is not only parents who beg for a panacea cell phone policy. Teachers cite the deterioration of the social aspect of the classroom as a major challenge to delivering effective and engaging instruction in today’s classroom. Assuming you have attempted to have a conversation with someone who is texting or answering an email, it is plain to see the difference in the level of engagement in a conversation with someone dividing his attention. The thoughtful, spirited, deep level discussions in a classroom are simply impossible to conduct if each student checks his or her phone, even just once. Part of the magic of the well run classroom is the synergy created by the students’ interactions. Ideas shared are expanded, developed, extended and thereby find connection and relatability that can then be stored in long term memory as real learning. And while all of this makes sense to most people, breaking the cell phone habit is hard. A simple “no cell phone” rule is not enough.

A teacher at my school recently had students turn up their volumes and tally up the notifications they received while in her class for a 40 minute class period. The images below tell the story best:

How is anyone to conduct a meaningful class discussion with this many interruptions to the participants’ focus? The students themselves grew tired and irritated by the amount of disruptions when they could hear them. Maybe they themselves were ‘only’ disrupted a dozen times, but when they and the teacher were made aware of just how many times the group as a whole had at least one person dropping out of the activity for a moment, it was stunning. No wonder this teacher was feeling as though some of her best instructional strategies were no longer working, and indeed she was spending more energy herself trying to engage students in meaningful discussions and debates while getting less and less out of her students. It is impossible to create great discussion while the participants divide their attention. This was a great demonstration to create awareness and it could also be further developed to include students in a democratic process to establish classroom rules and commitments to each other regarding cell phone use in their shared learning environment. First reactions were telling, however, in that students readily admitted that it was a problem but also resisted change because they confess to being “hooked” to the habit of checking their cell phones whenever and wherever they want.

I also interviewed students and was fortunate to have had two psychology classes take on a research project on this issue. The students researched cell phone use in class specifically, conducted experiments and then created presentations to report their findings. I joined the classes to learn from them and to engage in discussions about what they had learned and what they believed was the best course of action at our high school. Their mini-experiments and research found similar results as have already been reported here, but no matter the evidence, the idea that the school or a teacher would take their cell phones away from them was not well received. Teachers have devised all sorts of “cell phone parking lots” (systems to collect and store cell phones out of sight/sound while class is being conducted) and while I was at first a big believer in this strategy, my opinion has changed after listening to the students. The students could all agree that in classrooms where the content is engaging, they never think to get their cell phone out and that, in fact, confiscating the phone only added an element of resentment or anxiety. The students felt that any policy would be flawed because this is not a “one size fits all” problem. Each and every classroom has a different culture and each teacher her own personality and what will work in one environment will not work in another. For example, one policy students seemed to all enjoy was one where a teacher requires any student caught with his or her cell phone out to either serve a detention or bring a treat the next day for the class to share. Violators almost always take the treat option and, of course, the beneficiaries are grateful that the cell phone rule is guaranteed to be broken enough times to keep a steady stream of treats coming along. If you’ve ever been in a high school setting, then you know the power of appealing to a teenager’s appetite! Still, each and every student agreed that the culture of that classroom and the personality of that teacher made the system work and also that it was a completely unreasonable systemic solution. Most of these students, just like those involved in the tally experiment, admitted that cell phones were a distraction to their learning. I learned a great deal from the students in these conversations about how they regulate their usage. Many of them have deleted social media apps, almost all of them use “do not disturb” during the school hours, and all of them felt that looking at a cell phone during direct instruction was “totally not okay”, but that when it came to their own work time, it should be up to them whether or not they check in on their devices. I was impressed at their skills of self-regulation. Quite frankly, I believe they have thought about this much more than I have. These students have high expectations for themselves and they will find a way to solve any problem that gets in the way of the lofty goals they set for themselves. But, this was not a classroom of typical students. For starters, they engaged in this research project electively. These are some of our most successful and curious students who have opted for the most rigorous courses our school has to offer and so they do not represent the average student. Just like every classroom and every teacher is different, so are our students. Can the average student learn skills of self-regulation or must we police their activities with policies and punitive consequences?

After all of my research and listening to parents, teachers and students I have concluded that this problem cannot be ignored. The magnitude of the negative impact of dividing our attention while trying to learn has been proven, and it is significant. What’s more is that my focus was only on the academic impact of cell phone usage in the academic environment. Mounds of research exist warning of us of the potential social and emotional consequences of the over use social media and this too is a concern in our learning environment as students struggle with anxiety and depression at alarming rates. And yet, there are no simple solutions. This isn’t a them (student) problem, it’s an ‘all of us’ problem and we all need to have conversations about the purposeful use of cell phones and the extreme caution all learners should employ when choosing to allow the device to follow them into a classroom. As one student put it, “it comes down to how much you care (about your learning and achievement)”. And as another student honestly admitted, “sometimes my social needs are just more important to me than what the teacher is talking about” and so it is a dedicated daily effort to manage the impulse to check that Snap immediately instead of waiting until the next passing period or even after school has been dismissed.

My hope is that rather than blaming, judging or wishing that someone else would solve this complicated problem for us or for our children in the classroom, we will all take the opportunity to prioritize this discussion in our homes, in our workspaces and in our classrooms. One of the biggest takeaways from my discussions on this topic is how different each context and each person is, and it makes implementing a cure all policy impossible. I think the best way to show that we care is to model our best behavior, set expectations for our homes and to let our children’s teachers know they have our support. It is far easier for us to teach the important skills of discipline to a few children at home than it is for a teacher to teach it to 150+ students in 45 minute increments on top of his given curricular objectives. Our support of teachers’ efforts to honor the classroom learning space by reminding our children of the dangers of divided attention and taking time to set and communicate expectations, will make a difference for our students and their ability to regulate, learn and thrive in this distracted world.


Dent, Amy L. (2013). The Relation Between Self-Regulation and Academic Achievement: A Meta-Analysis Exploring Variation in the Way Constructs are Labeled, Defined, and Measured. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from

Dunbar, R.I. & Sutcliffe, A.G. (2013). Social complexity and intelligence In J. Vonk & T.K. Shackelford (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of comparative evolutionary psychology (102-117). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Glass, A. & Kang, M. (2018). Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance. Educational Psychology, 39, 395-408. doi 10.1080/01443410.2018.1489046

Kramer, B. (classroom discussion May 7, 2019). Various student comments and opinions.

Lee, Kim, McDonough, Mendoza & Kim. (2017). The Effects of Cell Phone Use and Emotion-regulation Style on College Students’ Learning. Applied Coginitive Psychology, 31, 360-366. doi: 10.1002/acp.3323

Sternberg, M. (classroom experiment March 8, 2019). Various data and subsequent discussions.

Ward, Duke, Gneezy & Bos. (2017). Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association of Consumer Research vol 2, num 2. Published online on April 3, 2017.

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