Smartphones as Tools of Teaching

Posted January 14, 2021

By Kostadin Kushlev


Imagine a device that allows you to measure objective behavior using the latest state-of-the-art sensors, a device so powerful that it can measure physical activity, sleep, social behavior, and even attention span. Now imagine that you do not need a large grant, or any funding for that matter, to use this device in your research or teaching. Of course, that device—the smartphone—already exists, waiting to be harnessed as a versatile and free tool of teaching.

An image of a smart phone
Phones as Measurement Tools

The most obvious behavior that smartphones allow us to measure is phone use. The iPhones (iOS 12 and later) now come with a native Screen Time function, which shows people’s total screen time, number of notifications, and phone pickups. A pickup captures any activation of the screen even without unlocking the screen. Screen Time also breaks down use by app and app category (e.g., social, entertainment, or information). For Android phones, students can download the Digital Wellbeing app, which provides similar metrics. Instead of phone pickups, for example, Digital Wellbeing measures the number of phone unlocks.

The data can be eye-opening for students. We all know that we use our phones frequently but numerically tracking that frequency, as well as types of use, can enhance self-awareness. This might be an opportunity to introduce research methods, basic statistics or to discuss applied research and behavior change.

A couple of screengrabs from a smart phone screen. One detailing which apps were used the most and the other detailing the amount of screen time and what it was used on.
Image used with the permission of the author

Phones can also measure other objective behaviors. The native iOS Health app, for example, measures the number of daily steps, though this function is more accurate when the phone is paired with a smartwatch. Since smartwatches are not as widely adopted as smartphones, it is best to stick to metrics that can be captured by the phone itself. To measure sleep, for example, I have asked students to download the Sleep Cycle app. This can provide useful feedback for class discussions on the psychology of sleep or on health psychology.

Phones as Tools of Experimental Manipulation

In addition to being measurement tools, phones can also be used as a way to manipulate behavior. Both Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing allow users to limit their phone use—from setting time limits on specific apps to scheduling time away from the screen each day. Downtime in iOS and Focus Time in Android, for example, both allow users to limit access to distracting apps during specific times each day. Students can also set regular bed and wake times. The phone will then remind them when it is time to sleep while making it more difficult to unlock the phone. This can allow students to track behavior change and can be a springboard for discussions about psychological interventions.

One manipulation—that students dislike yet find very effective in reducing phone use—is to set the phone screen to grayscale (via the Accessibility settings in iOS and within Digital Wellbeing in Android). Everything on the phone screen becomes gray, weakening the phones’ grip on the user.

Onboarding & Data Collection

By now, it should be clear that you can harness students’ phones in your teaching without any special research apps, knowledge of JSON files, or experience with raw sensor data. In fact, you need no direct access to students’ phones at all. Rather, you can ask students to report the metrics from their phones using whatever survey software you are familiar with. If you are concerned about compliance, you can ask students to upload a screenshot including the metric alongside their report of the metric. You need not code or analyze the screenshots, but this ensures that reporting the correct metric is easier than making it up.

All you need is to take students through a few basic steps to make sure they are all reporting the data you want. For example, Screen Time in iOS can be found under the Settings app. Be sure to instruct students to activate the metrics by selecting Screen Time and then tapping Turn on Screen Time. Ask students to make sure that Share Across Devices is toggled off unless you want the metrics to include use across all their Apple devices.

Students with Android phones will need to first download Digital Wellbeing from the Google Play Store. Note, however, that iPhones’ default measure of screen time is the daily average for the current week (starting on the previous Sunday), whereas Android’s default measure is screen time during the current day. Since students will vary on what time of day they complete the survey, it may be best to ask students to report their metrics for the previous day.

A young woman looking at her smart phone
Activities and Designs

You can harness the versatility of measures and settings of smartphones for a range of class activities—from brief class demos to daily-diary intervention studies. Here are a variety of ideas for doing so:

1.  Self-report accuracy. To demonstrate inaccuracy in self-reports of behavior when teaching Research Methods, you can ask students to guess their screen time. Research suggests that your students will likely underestimate their phone use compared to the objective measures, which are striking. If your students are anything like mine, they may average 3.5 hours of screen time a day with a modal response of 6+ hours a day!

2.  Measurement accuracy and bias. The same demo can be harnessed to teach more advanced topics, such as measurement accuracy and bias. Self-report measures of phone use are not an accurate measure of phone use. Yet, people tend to correctly guess where they stand compared to others because most people underestimate their use. Thus, self-reports of screen time are a poor way of estimating average use, but self-reported and objective screen time could still yield similar correlations with other measures.

3.  Research design. Phone can also provide a fun and hands-on way of teaching about cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental designs. For example, you can ask students to report their daily notifications as well as their mood. Past research shows that limiting notifications can be beneficial to well-being, but the number of notifications is often positively correlated with well-being. This can provide a fruitful discussion of confounds and the difference between correlation and causation. Having more friends, for example, might result in both receiving more notifications and feeling better. You can then ask students to silence their notifications for one week, allowing you to explore causality. This design can also provide a great way to discuss issues with compliance in experimentation (as students are bound to un-silence their phones at times).

4.  Specific topics. You can also use phones to teach more specific topics, such as in Social or Health Psychology. In Social Psychology, you can ask students to set an app limit for their most used social media app. What are the costs and benefits of social connection, well-being, distraction, learning, or productivity? In Health Psychology, you can use the bedtime settings to help students sleep more and establish a consistent sleep schedule. Did their mood improve? Was the effect mediated by sleep? You can even compare this with another condition in which students are instructed to sleep more. Was the phone manipulation more or less effective?

5.  Student projects and papers. Finally, instead of having to pick one manipulation from the plethora of options, you can ask students to conduct their own self-experiments. They can decide what features they want to try, seeing which ones work best for them. As educators, we always strive to teach our students lessons that will serve them well in the long term. A self-experiment might just provide such a lesson, allowing our students to reap the benefits of their phones while discovering how to mitigate their costs—long after the final exam.

A smart phone with apps superimposed on top of the screen, showcasing apps such as microphone, tools, headphones, etc.

The ubiquity of smartphones makes them powerful tools in the classroom. This is not to say, however, that every single student will have one—either by choice or because they may not be able to afford one. I approach this issue directly in class by simply saying that students need not have a smartphone to participate in the activity. I instruct those who do not have a smartphone to simply self-report their metrics. It is important to reinforce this message in the very design of the surveys. You can ask students to first report if they used an app to objectively measure their phone use. If they say No, your survey will simply ask them to estimate their phone use. Notice that because all the measures—objective or not—are self-reported, the option of not reporting objective measures applies to iOS or Android users. In other words, to make these activities as inclusive as possible, you should make sure that all students can decide whether they want to estimate or report objective measures. Regardless of how your students engage with these activities, the very existence of smartphone technology presents an opportunity to teach psychology.


Kostadin Kushlev is an assistant professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He holds a doctorate from the University of British Columbia. Kostadin studies a broad range of questions related to wellbeing, from its predictors to its consequences. Lying at the intersection between digital technology, happiness, and health, his research attempts to answer basic scientific questions about the role of digital technology in health and wellbeing, with both theoretical and applied implications. Methodologically, Kostadin’s research aims to elucidate psychological processes as they occur in the field by monitoring behavior and health in people’s daily lives while employing advanced statistical approaches, such as machine learning and multilevel modeling. His theoretical work has been published in Psychological Bulletin, Current Directions in Psychological Science, and Current Opinion in Psychology; his empirical work has been published in top journals, including Psychological Science, Emotion, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and Social Psychological and Personality Science. He has also had his work featured beyond the world of academia in The New York Times, The Economist, and Slate, and covered by BBC, NPR, CBC, and many others. Follow Dr. Kushlev on Twitter or find him at