I have a serious problem with a new intake of students. I am into my fifth session with them, lecturing in the field of the life sciences.
During week one, a number of mobile phones rang during the session, so I told the students that all phones should be switched off for the duration unless there was a compelling reason to do otherwise. Ever since, a small section of students has been leaving their phones on and allowing the text alert (a sort of cash-register sound) to go off during the lecture.
It happens according to a recurring pattern - every 15 minutes in a lecture of two hours. The number and frequency of the alerts increase until by the end of the lecture there are about eight of them going off simultaneously, spread across a group of about 80 students.
The prank is most certainly orchestrated - although it is difficult to tell to whom the phones belong because they all go off simultaneously. I have stopped the lecture several times to ask the students responsible to stop their games, but they persist.
I am starting to dread the lectures, am sleeping badly and don't know what to do. I have thought about cancelling the lecture but can only imagine what horrific feedback that would produce.
Your dilemma seems rather trivial but actually has deleterious repercussions. This is more than just a prank: it is a form of psychological bullying perpetrated by underdeveloped and immature students. They probably bring this behaviour from schools with rather poor boundaries regarding acceptable behaviour.
To tackle the problem, you could adopt a very authoritarian stance - "I have asked whoever is doing this to stop and if I discover who it is there will be serious repercussions..." - but this would risk you sounding desperate. You would also have to back up your threats if the students persisted, which would be easier said than done.
Alternatively, you could issue a plea to the "adults within" in the hope that the perpetrators would suddenly be struck with shame and desist, but it sounds as if they would be unlikely to respond.
The goings-on in your lecture hall raise issues of student responsibility for their learning and highlight the fact that the learning contract is simply a veneer of acceptable norms that can sometimes be subverted by the most trivial behaviour.
Ultimately, I think you should simply ignore the prank in the hope that a show of stoicism would take the fun out of it for the offenders.
Perhaps, also, you need to reflect on why this juvenile behaviour is getting to you so much. The more the students see it is rattling you, the more they will persist with their childishness. Consider letting it be and it will stop sooner or later.
Email your dilemmas to firstname.lastname@example.org