power sharing


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Teachers do have power, but it’s not absolute—as witnessed by students’ ongoing, widespread use of cell phones during class and online instruction. While policies abound, enforcement has proven difficult. True, faculty can prevent most students from using their phones, but as Karlin (2021) points out, “the price of compliance is high,” and that price often includes less learning in the course.

Discouraging cell phone use in courses finds extensive support in the research. For all intents and purposes, when students are on the phone, they’re cognitively absent from the course. Without focused attention, students cannot learn much of what we teach. The myth of multitasking continues to delude many students. Reasons against phone use in courses abound, but it continues to the consternation of faculty. Journal article views attest to the widespread interest teachers have in potential solutions. Yes, teachers care about the learning that isn’t happening, but let’s face it, seeing blatant student disinterest in the content and disregard for the policy makes teaching difficult and decidedly less pleasant.

So, I’m suspecting there’ll be interest in a prevention policy that worked in an organizational behavior course. Karlins made his way to it when, in yet another course, he observed students ignoring the ban on cell phone use. Students worked in groups in this course, and one day he decided to give them this assignment: “I want each group to come up with what they believe is a fair policy for eliminating cell phone usage during class time. The group that comes up with the best solution—as assessed by the instructor—will have that solution implemented for the rest of the semester.” Mostly he got unacceptable or unworkable solutions, but not from one group.

That group proposed a modest reward. If everyone in the group followed the policy, they earned a five-point bonus on their project presentation. If anyone in the group violated the policy, the group lost that bonus. Karlins adopted the policy, and it dramatically decreased phone usage. In the class that proposed the policy, only one group lost the bonus. He’s used it in the course since then and with the same results.

Is this the policy we’ve all be looking for? Will it work for everybody? I doubt it, but it still raises a couple of intriguing questions: Why did this policy work? Did it work for the teacher as well as the students?

I think the answers lie in the complexities of teacher power that we started to explore in my previous column. The position grants teachers the power to make, implement, and enforce policy. In this case the teacher relinquished a bit of that power. He put his policy on the chopping block and offered students the chance to replace it with a viable alternative. He implemented what they proposed, and the new policy accomplished its purpose. More students off their phones upped the chance that more were paying attention and potentially learning.

Is that where the story ends? I don’t think so. What teachers get from students is referent power—conferred by students on the basis of teachers’ personal characteristics and the values their interactions with students reflect. When students violate teacher policies, that erodes the teacher’s position power. Policy compliance matters. But using position power to enforce policies (“do this because I’m telling you to do it”) often engenders negative feelings about the teacher and the course. I’m not proposing that teachers pursue popularity. Doing so routinely compromises the integrity of the educational enterprise. But how students feel about the instructor influences what students do in the course. As I noted last week, teachers can use their referent power to advance learning.

In addition to finally getting a preventative phone policy to work, Karlins got something else: “a definite improvement in interpersonal interaction was noted in the classroom.” Could we call that a climate more conducive to learning? By sharing policy power with students (and it’s worth pointing out that he didn’t give students much power), he got back what he relinquished: an enforceable policy and additional power indicated by better classroom interaction. So, it is possible to share power and have it returned with a bonus. Is that a principle that applies only to cell phone policies? I don’t think so.


Karlins, M. (2021). A student-friendly approach to eliminating cell phone usage in the college classroom. College Teaching. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2021.1985423