Redirecting Students and Their Devices in a Business Classroom Environment

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 22–23, 2019

University of Miami
Miami, Florida


Most students continually use their personal devices throughout the day, texting friends and family and living very full and active social media lives, even when in the classroom. This paper examines strategies to employ their personal devices and attention away from their social media and back towards the class.  A number of technologies exist such as Poll Everywhere, Slido, and Kahoot that allow the instructor or presenter to create instant feedback mechanisms, anonymous polls and questions, classroom games, and a range of assessments that will help them to create an active learning environment for their students.


One of the greatest challenges that college instructors face is how to keep students engaged in the classroom. Most students come to class with an array of electronic devices such as iPhones and similar smart devices, tablets, and laptop computers. Over the next ten years, the number of digital devices that students bring with them to the classroom is likely to increase dramatically as the digital wearable device market evolves from smart watches and Fitbits to more sophisticated devices. Just a decade ago professors may have routinely tried to ban cell phones in the classroom, labeling them as disruptive to class. These efforts were generally less than successful. In today’s college environment, professors need to adjust their teaching style to keep their students engaged with the course and to account for and incorporate the student’s digital devices into the classroom.

There is a vast literature on student engagement and how best to reach our students. The college classroom has changed and it is no longer possible for a professor to simply stand in the front of the class as the “sage on the stage”. While some faculty still cling to the classic “chalk and talk” (more often with white boards and markers), most professors now rely on some type of PowerPoint presentation (Luse and Miller, 2011). While there was some divergence of thought on the value of PowerPoint as a tool for class by faculty members, Luse and Miller found that students thought it was an effective medium for teaching. They also concluded that faculty members needed to take care in preparing their presentation materials in order to create a more interactive presentation.

Alongside the implementation of an ever increasing array of technology available for classroom instruction from fully computerized presentation systems, Smart boards, the use of YouTube and other videos in the classroom – all of which keep the focus on talking to the students, faculty are encouraged to use a greater variety of active-learning methods. These active-learning methods may include regular in-class exercises, case studies, experiential learning activities such as simulations or class consulting projects, and the use of audience response systems (see for example Erzurumlu and Rollag, 2013; Eastman, Iyer and Eastman, 2011; Chatham and Davidson 2011).

Simulations and case studies are an excellent means to engage students in the course content, especially in a business or economics classroom. Erzurumlu and Rollag (2013) point out that the most effective case discussions take place only after students have first reviewed and prepared outside of the classroom. The reality is that undergraduate students are not always well-prepared (this is of course one of the issues with the flipped classroom approach as well) for class. Their answer to this issue is to turn the case into a consulting exercise in which the instructor creates the case as a role-playing situation in which the students are required to ask questions as if they were consultants. The instructor would then provide the information to the class and the students would have to formulate policy/management solutions. They found that the students preferred this mode of case study over the traditional discussion of already prepared cases.

Fawcett and Fawcett (2011) suggested a similar tactic for what could be termed structured storytelling. Their focus is on increasing the value of guest speakers in the classroom. The process that they suggested is that instructors first prepare a case/problem outline with their speaker (written by the instructor) before the speaker comes to the classroom. This case would then serve as the basis of the speaker’s presentation and class discussion. Kemp (2019) and Mitchell et al (2016) both discuss how field trips and field work can be effectively integrated into business and economics courses.

The focus of the rest of this presentation will be upon audience response systems, especially those that rely on students using their own devices in the classroom. Audience response systems (ARS) have been used in the classroom for over twenty years with the introduction of “clickers” in the classroom.  Both Premuroso, Tong and Beed (2011) and Chatham and Davidson (2011) found that clickers could be a very effective tool that increased student engagement in the classroom and student course satisfaction. Their findings on student outcomes though were more mixed. Clickers increased student engagement and provided students with immediate feedback on their progress with the course concepts while also providing them with anonymity in the classroom. ARS was especially beneficial for creating a more active environment with large class sizes. Fan, Power and Song (2017) in their study of cross-cultural differences and the impact of ASR in the classroom found that while there are some differences in impact across different groups, clickers are a valuable and effective tool for classroom teaching. Clickers have been used successfully in both large and small classroom settings.

The rest of this presentation is organized as follows. Section 2 will focus upon ARS with students using their own devices and the technologies available. In Section 3, general classroom issues are discussed. The conclusions are presented in Section 4.


Over the past academic year, I have conducted over twenty teaching observations of business, computer science, economics and sport management faculty.1 Very often in the course of those observations, I can readily observe that a number of students are busy using their own digital devices from cell phones and tablets to laptop computers. In the meantime, the instructor is busy with their lecture, working through PowerPoint (or in some cases just a marker and white board) presentation with a smattering of YouTube or other video clips included.

The better instructors always manage to include a series of active learning exercises (short and longer length as well). A number of instructors also use a range of interactive tools that students can access using either a clicker or their own personal devices. These tools include systems such as Kahoot (an interactive game environment), Poll Everywhere, Slido, Tophat (all three turn personal devices into a type of clicker or allow the individual to participate in online polling), or Blackboard polling. Some instructors still use an actual ASR clicker device.

A growing trend in the classroom is to ask students to use their own devices in the classroom. It is important to note that in general, almost all students already carry some type of smart phone to class as well as possibly multiple devices such as an Android or iPad tablet, Chromebook or MacBook, or a full laptop computer. Since the students are already using these devices in the classroom, the real question is  how to retain each individual student’s attention, or in other words, how to shift their attention away from their Instagram, Facebook or other social media content and harness these smart devices for teaching.

A recent article by Imazeki (2014) refers to this as “turning cellphones into forces for good.” Imazeki points out that requiring students to use their own devices reduces costs to the students, and simultaneously provides the instructor with the same benefit of increasing interactions and student engagement that would accrue from a separate ASR clicker. Some of the benefits often cited from the use of clickers include increased attendance, immediate feedback for students, efficiencies in grading, and the ability to conduct a wide range of assessments and interactive classroom activities (p. 241). Smart phones and tablets provide instructors to ask a wider range of questions from simple multiple choice and true-false questions to open-ended short answer style questions. These devices are also excellent tools for students to engage in a chat-style discussion log (anonymous) which the instructor can address throughout the class session.

One of the technologies that Imazeki (2014) focuses upon in her study is Poll Everywhere (PE). PE is a web-based system that can provide the instructor with instantaneous class responses with a variety of question types – from simple true/false and multiple-choice style questions to open-ended questions. The class responses can be displayed using an array of different options (see both Imazeki 2014; Paz 2017). There are though other similar systems as well such as Slido, Tophat, Kahoot, or even Blackboard Poll, that allow the instructor to create an interactive classroom.

Classroom concerns/discussion

At issue for the instructor is how to keep the students’ attention focused on the classroom discussion. Often as an observer, I find students in the classroom busy texting on their phones, using their laptops and other devices to register for classes, or keep up with their social media. In one recent classroom observation, I witnessed a student watching close captioned Manga cartoons. Students have their devices with them in the classroom – so the question is, can we redirect the student’s attention back and their device use to support learning.

Poll Everywhere, Slido and Kahoot offer the instructor ease of use and the ability to create polls and interactivity in the classroom. Students or audience members can ask questions anonymously through their devices and the instructor/presenter can set up the presentation to either display the question to the rest of the room or to restrict the display. They also offer multiple polling and assessment methods. As a classroom observer this past semester, I have witnessed two instructors use these methods quite effectively in the classroom. Breaking out of lecture mode, both instructors were able engage their students in an evaluation and discussion of the material being discussed (one was a horticulture class and the second class was in operations management). Students that had previously been busy texting or otherwise disengaged were enlivened by the interactive approach.

There are of course other vehicles to engage students in the class discussion and take their attention away from their social media activities. Some instructors ask their students to use their personal devices as tools for in-class exercises – whether it is for simply looking up information on the web or conducting more full-fledged research during class. The bottom line is that active learning engages students. Creating active learning environments takes some significant effort on the instructor’s part. Developing effective presentation materials that incorporate active learning implies that instructors will need to move beyond publishers’ textbook materials.


Interactive audience response systems are used regularly by faculty and are one solution to reengaging our students and redirecting their attention away from their electronic devices. They provide instructors with the ability to gauge student understanding of the material and advance the class through active learning. They are of course only one strategy. When combined with other active learning methods from the flipped classroom to the use of group and individual active learning exercises in the classroom it is possible to draw our students more directly into their learning.


1At Farmingdale, as part of the review process leading to reappointment, tenure, and promotion, all tenure track faculty and faculty seeking promotion undergo a formal teaching observation process on a regularly scheduled basis. Given that there are currently close to thirty-five tenure track faculty in the School of Business and an additional three to five faculty seeking promotion annually, as the academic dean of the school, I generally must conduct approximately twenty teaching observations annually.

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Spring 2020: Critical Conversations and the Academy