Smartphone Addicts: A Project-Based Learning Activity

In an earlier blog post, I challenged my students to turn an online quiz about technology into a series of questions they could pose to their classmates to gauge the extent of their obsession with their smartphones and other electronic devices.  This semester, we moved the idea of a smartphone survey out of the safe confines of the classroom and into the community as part of a project-based learning activity designed to promote speaking English outside of class. Here’s how:

Crafting the Survey Questions

For starters, I put my intermediate-level adult students in groups of three and invited them to brainstorm as many questions as they could in order to learn about how people in the United States use their smartphones. In contrast with the activity I described in my earlier post, I did not give them a lengthy set of true/false statements to turn into questions.  Instead, I challenged them to come up with at least 20 questions of their own, including a mix of “WH” information questions and “yes/no” questions.

In response, they developed a wide array of questions, including questions designed to explore how people felt when they forgot their phones; how often they checked their cell phones; and whether they texted while driving, shared their passwords with others, preferred Apple to Samsung and other competitors, or believed that their smartphones made them more (or less) productive.

I had all the groups e-mail their questions to me and compiled them into a master list of questions, which I then redistributed to the class, along with instructions for what became our Smartphone Survey Project.

Planning the Survey

I advised my students that their next step was to work with their team to make a final decision about what questions to ask, how to conduct the survey, how to collect and record their data, and how to present their results in class.

Here are some decisions I asked them to make with their team:

  1. What do you want to find out with your survey? Are you interested in comparing results for men versus women? Different age groups? Different demographic groups?
  2. How many questions do you want to ask? Which questions do you want to include in your survey?
  3. How are you going to conduct your survey? How many people do you want to interview? Where are you going to find people to interview? How are you going to introduce yourself to them?
  4. How are you going to record the results of your interviews?
  5. How are you going to combine the data from your interviews with those of the other members of your group?
  6. How are you going to communicate with members of your team outside of class?
  7. How are you going to present the data from your survey to your classmates?

I gave students plenty of class time to work as a team to plan their survey, design an interview template, rehearse how they would introduce themselves to survey participants, and aggregate their results. Before releasing them into the community, I worked with each team to help them make sure that their questions were grammatical and that everyone had a short “elevator speech” they could give to explain why they were doing the survey.   But the lion’s share of the work took place outside of class, as students conducted their interviews (on public transportation, at train stations, at work, in their apartment buildings, and around our college campus) and then met as a team to put the finishing touches on their presentations.

Presenting Their Findings

Every team rose to the challenge of finding visually appealing ways to present their findings. One older student, who had never before learned to use any presentation software, was so intrigued by what she saw the other teams doing on their laptops during the time I gave them in class to work on their presentations, that she went and found a friend to teach her how to use Prezi so she could compile her team’s findings in that format.

The presentations themselves were engaging and sparked a lot of discussion around hot topics like texting and driving, and what the appropriate age is to give a child a cellphone. While most teams chose to look for gender-based differences, one group decided to investigate whether Asian immigrants had different cell phone habits and preferences than Americans.


As a wrap-up activity, we looked some of the strengths of the presentations (use of colorful images, cartoons, and informative graphics) as well as some of the weaknesses (a tendency on the part of several presenters to read from their slides rather than make eye contact with their classmates) and the “lessons learned” from the survey experience.   Several students reported being pleasantly surprised to discover how helpful and patient their interview subjects were.  All in all, students not only had a chance to hone their presentation skills but to use their English speaking skills to negotiate the design of the survey with their teammates and to engage in a confidence-building way with the English-speaking world outside of class.

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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