Get Smart

A BU professor locked up her students’ phones, and they were not happy. At first

Associated Press

As technology increasingly dominates daily life, classrooms are feeling the effects. Joelle Renstrom, a lecturer of rhetoric at Boston University, noticed that her students were succumbing to digital distractions, focusing more on their smartphones than on lessons.

To combat this issue, Renstrom conducted an experiment among 30 students in her two classes during the 2017 spring semester. She required them to place their phones in locked pouches that could only be opened via a magnetic key on Renstrom’s desk.

“Once you quiet that all down, you have freedom to actually engage things with your mind that you didn’t realize you were missing,” Renstrom said of phone distraction. “And I really think I noticed that happening with my students.”


To gauge students’ sentiments toward the experiment, featured recently in BU Today, Renstrom surveyed them at the beginning and end of the semester.

Here are some highlights of students’ answers to Renstrom’s survey:

■  At the start of the semester, 37 percent of students said that they were either angry or annoyed about having to put their phones away. By the end of the semester, only 14 percent had a negative reaction.

■  After the semester had concluded, the majority of students said that society would benefit from decreased phone use — 65 percent said “yes” and 19 percent said “I think so.”

■  When faced with the question, “If you know that not having your phone will provide a better environment, why do you still use it as much as you do?” — 20 percent of students used the word “addiction” in their answers.

■  Another question asked students whether they would consider implanting phones inside their bodies if technology allows it one day. Only 32 percent said they absolutely would not do it. The rest of the classes either answered yes or that it would depend on the price.


“Two-thirds of them would at least consider making their phones a part of their body despite this experiment that we did and the problems with addiction and distraction,” Renstrom said.

Renstrom said she did not bar cell phones from her fall semester classes because she doesn’t have enough pouches for all her students. But, she said, she considered the experiment a success and would be willing to repeat it.

“It’s that anxiety that you don’t know what you’re missing and I think they had that a lot at first,” she said. “Over time, they’re checking their phone and they’re realizing ‘Oh nothing happened during the last 50 minutes.’ . . . So that anxiety decreased over the course of the semester pretty significantly.”

Sophia Eppolito can be reached at sophia.eppolito@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaEppolito.