Teaching of Psychology

Teaching of Psychology, 37: 55–57, 2010 Copyright C© Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0098-6283 print / 1532-8023 online DOI: 10.1080/00986280903425912

Costly Cell Phones: The Impact of Cell Phone Rings on Academic Performance

Christian M. End, Shaye Worthman, Mary Bridget Mathews, and Katharina Wetterau Xavier University

College students participated in a study on the “psy- chology of note taking” during which they took notes on video content and later completed a multiple-choice test on the material. Researchers assigned 71 partici- pants to either the ringing condition (the video was dis- rupted by a ringing cell phone) or the control condition (no cell phone rings disrupted the video). The hypoth- esis that the cell phone rings would impair performance was confirmed. Compared to the control group, partici- pants in the ringing condition performed significantly worse on the disrupted test items and were less likely to in- clude the disrupted information in their notes. Citing em- pirical evidence of academic impairment in course syllabi may improve regulation of cell phone use in the class- room.

The primary difference between the . . .” (a ringing cell phone distracts the students attending the lecture), “which accelerates heart rate and inhibits peristalsis, and the (the phone rings again) . . . .”

Students who experience a cell phone intrusion, as in this example, might be unable to identify the dis- rupted lecture content, and thus their learning could be impaired. The purpose of this study was to deter- mine if a ringing cell phone impacts learning in the classroom.

Researchers have used a variety of methodolo- gies to establish that noise impairs participants’ per- formance on cognitive tasks (Banbury, Tremblay, Macken, & Jones, 2001; Tremblay, Nicholls, Al- ford, & Jones, 2000). In typical laboratory experi- ments, researchers expose college students to a noise (e.g., tone, speech) while they are completing a read- ing comprehension task or attempting to memorize

a stimulus, such as a list of ordered words (Hughes & Jones, 2001). In field studies, experimenters ex- amined the negative impact of environmental noise (e.g., trains, airports) on children’s academic perfor- mance in school (Enmarker, Boman, & Hygge, 2006; Hygge, 2003). The control afforded by experimen- tal design has enabled researchers to identify how various characteristics of the sound or task can im- pair performance, albeit in a sterile environment. The ecological validity of the field studies highlights the real-world consequences of noise with regard to edu- cation, specifically grade impairment. Unfortunately, attempts to abate environmental noises (e.g., trains) have not sufficiently eliminated students’ impaired performance, indicating that researchers should ex- amine irrelevant noises that could be more feasibly eliminated (Shield & Dockrell, 2003), specifically, noise generated from inside the classroom, a source that researchers typically neglect (Dockrell & Shield, 2006).

Despite evidence that people consider the use and ringing of cell phones in the classroom inappropriate and problematic (Wei & Leung, 1999), with both fac- ulty and students reporting support for efforts to reg- ulate cell phone use (Campbell, 2006), ringing cell phones continue to invade college classrooms (Gilroy, 2004). The purpose of this study was to determine if the effects of noise on academic performance gener- alize to that of the cell phone ring in a real-world setting. Specifically, we hypothesized that a cell phone ring originating from inside a classroom would impair participants’ performance on a recognition task and that a cell phone ring would decrease the probability that participants record critical lecture material in their notes.

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Researchers recruited 71 (23 men, 48 women) un- dergraduate students through the psychology depart- ment’s participant pool. Participants believed they were participating in a study examining the “psy- chology of note taking” in exchange for research credit. The sample’s mean age was 20.21 years (SD = 2.13), and most participants (83.1%) were White.


Researchers randomly assigned 32 (12 men, 20 women) participants to the ringing condition and 39 (11 men, 28 women) participants to the nonring- ing condition. After obtaining informed consent, re- searchers informed participants that they would watch an educational video (Blue, Thomas, Ackerman, & Lustig, 1995), during which they would take notes as they would during a lecture. Researchers also told participants that they would complete an eight-item multiple-choice comprehension test without notes. To ensure that participants approached the task in a seri- ous and motivated manner, researchers informed par- ticipants that those who scored highest on the test would be eligible to win a gift certificate to a local restaurant.

In the ringing condition, cell phone rings disrupted the viewing of the video. At two predetermined times, a confederate caller phoned a confederate recipient seated in the center of the classroom. The phone rang for 5 sec while the confederate recipient “searched” through a backpack. In the nonringing condition, there were no cell phone disruptions.

Following the video, researchers collected the notes, and participants completed a multiple-choice test that assessed their ability to recognize factual video content. Two of the test questions corresponded with informa- tion presented at the time of the two phone calls in the ringing condition. Upon completion of the test, participants completed an item that served as a ma- nipulation check (97.2% of the participants correctly identified the absence or presence of a cell phone ring). Additionally, two raters coded the participants’ notes for the absence or presence of the information pre- sented during the ringing of the phone (93.3% inter- rater agreement).


We used 2 (condition: ringing or control) × 2 (item performance: correct or incorrect) chi-square contingency tests to determine if participants in the ringing condition performed significantly worse than participants in the control condition on the dis- rupted test items. Participants in the ringing condi- tion scored significantly worse than the participants in the control condition on the first disrupted item, χ2(1, N = 71) = 8.54, p = .003, and the second dis- rupted item, χ2(1, N = 71) = 6.83, p = .009 (see Table 1 for percentages). There were no significant differences between the conditions on the six nondis- rupted test items. Two 2 (condition: ringing or con- trol) × 2 (presence in notes: yes or no) chi-square contingency tests revealed that participants in the ringing condition were less likely to record the nec- essary information for the first disrupted item, χ2(1, N = 71) = 5.58, p = .018, and the second disrupted item, χ2(1, N = 71) = 11.30, p = .001, when com- pared to participants in the control condition (see Table 1).


Findings indicated that cell phone rings during a video presentation impaired academic performance. Specifically, participants in the ringing condition per- formed worse on disrupted test items and were less likely to have recorded pertinent test information for disrupted test items than participants in the control condition.

Table 1. Comparison of the Academic Performance of Participants in the Control and

Ringing Conditions


Academic Task Disrupted Item Control Ringing

Correctly answered Test Item 1 94.9% 68.8%** Test Item 2 79.5% 50.0%**

Presence in notes Test Item 1 79.5% 53.1%* Test Item 2 82.1% 43.8%***

Note. Table indicates the percentage of participants in each condition. ∗p < .05. ∗∗p < .01. ***p = .001.

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There are several limitations to consider. In an at- tempt to standardize the lecture, researchers chose to use a video instead of a teacher. If the participants could have requested that the teacher repeat the dis- rupted information, the negative effects of a ring might have disappeared. The timing of the test might have impaired performance. If tested at a later date, stu- dents could attempt to combat the impairment (e.g., reference the course textbook), although the data sug- gest that “studying their notes” would be an ineffective strategy as the notes were more likely to be missing the relevant information. Despite these limitations, other characteristics associated with cell phone disruptions might have led to greater impairment. For example, research suggests that had we used a ring tone with acoustic variation (e.g., a song), increased test item difficulty, and measured recall performance, the im- pairment would have been more pronounced (Hygge, 2003; Tremblay et al., 2000).

Faculty and students must continue to support poli- cies that regulate cell phone use in the classroom (Gilroy, 2004). Policies requiring students to reduce the volume of the tone or change the ring to vibration mode might be ineffective, as the mere audibleness of noise, not necessarily intensity, impairs performance (Banbury et al., 2001; Hughes & Jones, 2001). Wei and Leung’s (1999) participants perceived that self- regulation of one’s personal cell phone use would be an effective means of curbing inappropriate cell phone use. If professors disseminate the results of this and future studies to students (e.g., syllabus content), it might provide an incentive, specifically a simple means of preventing impaired academic performance, for the students to regulate their use.


Banbury, S. P., Tremblay, S., Macken, W. J., & Jones, D. M. (2001). Auditory distraction and short-term memory: Phenomena and practical implications. Human Factors, 43, 12–29.

Blue, C. P., Thomas, R., Ackerman, D. (Writers), & Lustig, J. (Director). (1995). Vision [Television series episode]. In R. Thomas & P. Apsell (Producers), Mystery of the senses. Washington, DC: WETA.

Campbell, S. W. (2006). Perceptions of mobile phones in college classrooms: Ringing, cheating, and classroom poli- cies. Communication Education, 55, 280–294.

Dockrell, J. E., & Shield, B. M. (2006). Acoustical barriers in classrooms: The impact of noise on performance in the classroom. British Educational Research Journal, 32, 509– 525.

Enmarker, I., Boman, E., & Hygge, S. (2006). Structural equation models of memory performance across noise con- ditions and age groups. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 47, 449–460.

Gilroy, M. (2004). Invasion of the classroom cell phones. Education Digest, 69(6), 56–60.

Hughes, R., & Jones, D. (2001). The intrusiveness of sound: Laboratory findings and their implications for noise abate- ment. Noise and Health, 13, 51–70.

Hygge, S. (2003). Classroom experiments on the effects of different noise sources and sound levels on long-term recall and recognition in children. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17, 895–914.

Shield, B. M., & Dockrell, J. E. (2003). The effect of noise on children at school: A review. Building Acoustics, 10, 97–116.

Tremblay, S., Nicholls, A. P., Alford, D., & Jones, D. M. (2000). The irrelevant sound effect: Does speech play a special role? Journal of Experimental Psy- chology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 26, 1750– 1754.

Wei, R., & Leung, L. (1999). Blurring public and private behaviors in public space: Policy challenges in the use and improper use of the cell phone. Telematics and Informatics, 16, 11–26.


1. We thank Melanie Pietras and Kshema Sunil for their invaluable contributions.

2. Send correspondence to Christian M. End, 214 Elet Hall ML 6511, Department of Psychology, Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH 45207; e-mail: end@xavier.edu.

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