Helping students control their mobile devices

Nik Peachey

Nik Peachey is a freelance teacher trainer, writer, course designer, conference speaker and learning technology consultant. He is a two-time British Council Innovations Award Winner and is a keen blogger and content curator. In this article, he shares his tips and a lesson plan on how we can help students use their mobile devices in a more productive way.

When a designer builds a mobile app, they do everything they can to design it so that it’s engaging and holds your attention for as long as possible. The designer has a range of tools at their disposal to enable them do this and many do it very successfully. Helping students to understand this and helping put them in control of their devices can be the first steps to ensuring they use them in a more productive and constructive way.

One of the first ways to make this happen is to ensure students understand how to control their notifications. Notifications are sounds and messages that appear unprompted on a person’s device. On social networking apps these could be prompted by someone from the network sending a message or interacting with the user’s content. On other apps, these notifications could be regularly timed messages that the app has been programmed to send based on the kind of behaviour the designer wants to encourage the user to adopt. Either way, if your student wants to be in control of their device rather than their device controlling them, then they need to know how to silence these and switch them off.

Suggestions for helping students take control of their devices

Most mobile phone brands have a settings menu where students can find these notifications and configure them for each app. If you or your students don’t know where to look for these, you can easily find an image or video showing how and where to turn them off using a search engine such as Google. You can even build an activity around this.

Once the notifications have been turned off you may need to reassure students that they aren’t actually missing anything – they are simply taking control. You could do this by scheduling social media breaks into your lessons. These are regular breaks where you give your students time to catch up on their virtual lives and check any messages. This may help to reduce their anxiety and motivate them to work well, if you use this as a reward. You can gradually start to lengthen the time between each social media break as they get used to not constantly checking their devices.

Many students think they are addicted to their phones, although there is no official diagnosis for this as a condition. You could therefore focus on working with students to create a balanced approach to how they use their phone through the day. This could include things like planning the times when they will and won’t use their phone, for example, turning it off 30 mins before they go to bed or putting the phone away during meal times.

You could also negotiate a cell phone use contract with your students that stipulates how and when students can use their phones in the classroom. This needs to be created by the students with some input from you, but remember, this might involve you giving some ground. Here are some things you could include in the contract:

1. Notifications will be turned off during class.

2. We will do activities during class that include the use of your phone. During these activities you will only use the phone to complete the activity.

3. We will schedule regular breaks during which you will have time to check and respond to messages.

You could get students to brainstorm suggestions for balanced phone use and then get them to share their ideas and see which ones each student is willing to agree to.

Below is a lesson plan that you can use with your students to raise awareness of some of the issues and help them come up with their own suggestions for how they should be using their phones. 

Lesson Plan – Who’s in control?

Start the lesson by playing a phone notification sound and see how students respond.

You can access some phone sounds here.

Ask the students to draw a line. At one end write ‘The phone is in control’ and at the other end write ‘I am in control’.








Ask the students to draw a cross on the line to show where they are.

Ask them to compare in small groups and justify their position on the line.

Give out these statements to students and ask them to discuss in groups which ones they think are true.

Once they have had time to discuss, get some feedback from the students – you could even put them into groups and make this a quiz, awarding points for the teams that are correct.

Mobile Phone Facts or Fiction

Which of these sentences do you think is true?

  • There is a condition called nomophobia. It means fear of being without the phone.


  • 61% of people feel phantom (unreal) notification vibrations.


  • Students who use their phones to study are twice as likely to study between 6 and 8 am and much less likely to study all night.


  • Phone users unlock and use their phone on average around 80 times a day.


  • Having notifications on can have a damaging impact on your concentration.


  • Not checking your phone when you hear a notification can have a damaging impact on your health.


  • Students who use their phones to study are almost 3 times more likely to track their own progress.


  • Just being able to see your phone while doing a task can result in a lower grade even if you know the phone is switched off.


  • Overuse of mobile phones can have damaging effects on your ability to develop close personal relationships.


  • Leaving your phone outside of the classroom can help you achieve a higher grade.


  • Students who use their mobile device to study average 40 minutes more study time each week.


  • When students study on their mobile, 40% of study sessions include a break to check social media or messages.


Discuss the results. (You don’t need to tell them this until the discussion is over, but according to various research studies all of the statements are true).

It’s worth pointing out that the experiments that show a negative impact on student performance were all carried out in conditions during which the phone was not used as part of the learning process.

Follow up

Put the students into groups and ask them to create a list of guidelines for productive use of their mobile phones.

They can structure this as ten tips. Once they have finished their list of ten tips ask them to share with other groups and see if there are any tips they would steal from the other group.

As a class, decide on the best ten tips. You could also make this into a class contract that you and the students sign up to.

If you enjoyed this article, why not read Nik’s post on Classroom management for the connected classroom.

  • Gary Motteram

    Thanks for highlighting my talk Matthew. I’m talking about teacher development and the co-production of materials with the teachers who live and work in the Za’atari refugee camp.

  • Eily Murphy

    Am I missing something, or is Cambridge not uploading any “IATEFL Talks” this year?
    If so, it’s a real shame as I caught some great ones here last year that the BC didn’t cover 😢

    • Jasmine Short

      Hello Eily,

      We’re working on uploading our IATEFL Talks at the moment. In the meantime we’ve got some great talks from IATEFL 2017 to wet your appetite.



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