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New Study Looks at the Impact of Screen Free Zones in College Classrooms

By John McDonald
Laura Rhinehart and Salvador R. Vazquez

UCLA SEIS Graduate Students Laura Rhinehart and Salvador R. Vazquez join with UCLA Psychology Professor Patricia M. Greenfield in new study with implications for student performance and instructor evaluations.

In many college classrooms, student use of digital devices is ubiquitous.  Students use tablets, cell phones,  laptop computers and other devices to take notes, record lectures, and look up information. But they have also been known to use them for other purposes that may distract them and others.  And while some students say that use of a laptop or other digital tool with a screen helps them with their studies, research has shown that the use of such devices may be detrimental to classroom learning and achievement.

As the use of digital devices in classrooms has increased,  professors have grown concerned, with some limiting or even prohibiting student use during lectures or classes.  Research has shown that such bans improve student performance, but students have been known to push back, expressing their frustrations with limits on use in teacher evaluations.

A recent study, The Impact of Screen-Free Zones in an Undergraduate Psychology Classroom: Assessing Exam Performance and Instructor Evaluations in Two Quasi-Experiments, by  UCLA Education and Information Studies graduate students Laura Rhinehart and Salvador R. Vazquez, with a UCLA Psychology professor Patricia M. Greenfield, seeks to shed some light on this standoff over screen-time. (Rhinehart earned her Ph.D.  from UCLA in 2019 and is now an Assistant Researcher).

Published in the journal Teaching of Psychology, the study shares the findings of a series of experiments aiming to understand whether restricting screen use in an undergraduate psychology course had an impact on student exam scores and instructor or course evaluations.

The experiments examined students in a UCLA undergraduate psychology class in 2017 and 2018.  In the first study, no restrictions were placed on one class that served as a control group, while in another class, students were shown findings about the negative use of screen devices in the classroom and were told they could only use devices if they sat in a screen section in the back of the lecture hall.  As the quarter progressed, more students moved into the screen use section, and by end of the class only about one-quarter of students were using the screen-free area. 

The analysis found a significant difference in final exam scores in favor of the class with screen restrictions, with students scoring on average 4% higher on their final exam than students the year before who had taken the class before implementation of a screen policy. 

“The difference in scores might seem small,  but the difference between 86% and 90% was the difference between B+ and A-, which is especially meaningful to many students,” said Rhinehart.

“If a student is concerned about a challenging course or their grade, I would suggest they might not want to use screened devices. Instead, students might want to take notes by hand. As important as devices can be, closing the screen and intently listening to your professor is a great way to truly learn the course material,” she added. 

Another important finding was the impact on the evaluation of teachers.  Students in the class with screen restrictions gave the professor lower marks on the classroom evaluation (a mean of 6.29 on a scale of 10) in comparison to the control classroom with no screen policies. (A mean of 7.22). Instructor evaluations indicated that more than a few students were displeased with the screen-free policy, even though they had the option of using their own screens in class. In comments, one student wrote, “I hate the screen policy rule.”

In the second experiment, students were again given information about the benefits of not using screens in class and asked if they would like to sit in a screen-free section or one in which they could use screens.  But with this group, the professor then divided the lecture hall in half across the seats, so that both groups of students could sit in rows from front to back.  No students were required to sit in the back of the lecture hall.

The analysis revealed significant positive correlations between the amount of time spent in the screen-free section during lecture and scores on the mid-term exam and the final, with students sitting in the screen-free zone during lectures scoring higher on both exams. Students who began and remained in the no-screen section  -- a  “never screen” group, performed best on the final exam. Additionally, students who began to use their screens less midway through the course saw, on average, a 4% increase from their midterm scores to their final exam scores. 

There were also positive implications for instructor evaluations. While 60 percent of students completed the evaluations, no student mentioned the screen policy, and the mean score of the instructor evaluations was similar to those before the screen policy was enacted.

These results suggest that placing screen and screen-free zones side by side can support student learning more than a course with no screen restrictions, and students are generally as satisfied with side-by-side zones as with no screen restrictions.

“ It did matter where students were in the room, there is a stigma that comes from being placed in the back of the classroom,” Vazquez said.  “In their evaluations of the professor –  they show us that it is not just about providing students with autonomy, but being cognizant of the cultural factors in a college classroom that make students feel welcome. Creating a side-by-side arrangement was accepted by the students. 

“And Importantly, professors can use evidence like ours to try strategies for limiting the use of screens in classrooms, and to show students that there are benefits to leaving the computer aside, he added.

The researchers also note that their findings have implications for distance learning, which have grown in importance during COVID 19. The results suggest that during remote instruction, students should only use their computer to watch and listen to lectures, without the distraction of visiting other websites, and that their exam performance will be better if they take notes by hand.

The Impact of Screen-Free Zones in an Undergraduate Psychology Classroom: Assessing Exam Performance and Instructor Evaluations in Two Quasi-Experiments, was published in June 2021 in the Sage Publications Journal,  Society for the Teaching of Psychology.  The study is available with permissions at

Laura Rhinehart is an Assistant Researcher at UCLA. She earned her Ph.D. in Special Education in 2019 from the School of Education and Information Studies at  UCLA.

Salvador R. Vazquez is a Ph.D. candidate in Human Development & Psychology at the School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA where he currently serves at the Teaching Assistant Consultant for first time teaching assistants.