Tuesday, October 25, 2011

now watch while I balance this ball on my nose!

A recent article in the Harvard Crimson boils down the reasons students check Facebook during lecture as follows:
  • Professor was just regurgitating the text; student became bored
  • Professor was not regurgitating the text; student lost the thread, became agitated
  • Student did not understand material; student became frustrated; paying closer attention apparently did not occur to student
  • Student's brain was full; student needed time to decompress
  • Student was on a tight schedule and "multitasked", presumably so as to save valuable beer-drinking time later
The (student, I'm assuming) author points out that it's not necessary for students to pay attention, really, because most of the information is available on the web anyway, and suggests that faculty can deal with this problem by remaining "constantly innovative" in order to "serve (student) needs better".

I'm sure their parents are delighted to kick in that $40,000+ per year so their kids can ignore lectures whose content they could apparently have got on the web for free. I cannot help but feel, myself, that the Facebook-checkers are not the students whose needs I feel most strongly compelled to serve.


  1. Yes, the author is a student. The Crimson is one of a small number of daily (5 day a week) papers written, published, etc. entirely by college students. Serving as publisher, editorial director, etc., is pretty much a full-time senior year job (and a gateway to work on a major non-university daily). They're more literate than the producers of my own institution's (weekly) paper, but that doesn't keep them from being just as annoying as many other 20-somethings (perhaps more so thanks to the assumption of privilege).

    Having often filled the margins of my college lecture notes with doodles, to-do lists, etc., I'm not entirely convinced this is a new phenomenon. I also wonder about the following statement: "the IT revolution has destroyed the traditional professor-student knowledge hierarchy. Access to knowledge has become easier. In the past, professors were knowledge gatekeepers when lecturing at the pulpit. To do well in class or feed their intellectual curiosity, students had no choice but to listen actively in lecture to uncover the knowledge residing with their professors." If this were true, shouldn't Gutenberg's invention, or at least the invention of cheap stereotyping, have killed the universities rather than feeding them? Admittedly there's a curatorial role that professors (and librarians and university press reviewers) play, but that's true for the web, too (and some of the examples the author sites, such as Khan academy, play that role). I've got my questions about lecturing as a pedagogical mode, but it seems to me that, as the amount of available "information," much of it contradictory, duplicative, and/or outright drek, increases, the professor's curatorial/guide role becomes even more important. Maybe that's what the author is actually asking for, but "service" doesn't seem quite the right word for it. If anything, most methods that get students to actually think are likely to leave them, at least temporarily, *more* agitated, frustrated, and in need of decompression.

  2. Oops -- author "cites," not "sites." That's what I get for making comments about (apparent) levels of literacy.

  3. It's been clear for ages that our primary role is not only to instruct but to help students find their way through the maze of disinformation out there, and show them where the good stuff is and how they can tell that for themselves. Also, to spoon-feed our students the texts. I could never figure out what the classes were for when I was an undergraduate - couldn't I just read the books? - so I almost never went. (Which was a serious handicap when I had to start teaching and had no idea what was supposed to happen in an undergraduate class. Seriously.) It wasn't until I was almost ready to graduate that I started going more consistently and discovered that the point of classes was to make things EASIER. By telling me what was important, what wasn't, where the text had got something wrong, emphasizing stuff - I could, it turned out, have been saving myself a lot of time and effort by going to class and then just skimming the readings. Oops.

  4. PBS Frontline did a documentary called Digital Nation in Feb 2010 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/

    I now use it in my comp classes--in fact, my students are writing a paper on it (due this Thursday).

    MIT professor Sherry Turkle points out that "Students need to be stimulated in ways that they didn't need to be stimulated before...Every professor who looks out onto a sea of students these days knows there's email, FaceBook, Googling me, Googling them, Googling their next-door neighbor, that's happening in the classroom. I mean, it even changes how teachers teach because now the- the pressure is on teaching kind of scintillating PowerPoint things that will distract them from the Web."

    Another MIT prof points out that tests that he gives his students--tests that they should all do very well on--are showing that students are distracted to the point where it's negatively impacting their grades:
    "There are two sorts of things you can test students about. You can test how well they're paying attention in lecture and you can test how well they're absorbing information from readings that you assign. And I don't think they're doing either of those things well.

    I just gave my class a midterm, and I was really asking obvious questions that, had they been attending carefully in lecture and had they been doing the readings carefully, everyone should have gotten 100 percent on this exam. And the mean score was probably about a 75 percent. It's not that the students are dumb, it's not that they're not trying, I think they're trying in a way that's not as effective as it could be because they're distracted by everything else."

    They're distracted, and they either don't know it, or they know it, and they don't care. The MIT and Stanford "multi-taskers" were supremely convinced of their ability to do several things at once, and do them well--even when a lab experiment pointed out that they were, in fact, worse at those tasks than people who just do one thing at a time.

    And here's the kicker: we have to teach them. I'm pretty entertaining anyway, so my students generally pay attention. But what about on those days when I've got to straight lecture on something boring, like writing summaries? Therein lies the challenge--because even with a good PowerPoint leavened with a good dose of humor isn't going to keep all of them tuned in. And given all the other challenges I'm facing right now, I'm not sure how much more I can do.

  5. I give reading quizzes on basic content. They flunk them even having done the reading. I don't think they know how to concentrate, period.

  6. I see this as pretty much their problem, not mine. Now, it is THEIR problem, and I do my best to help them with it, as follows: at the beginning of every term I tell my classes that they are welcome to use laptops in class to take notes. And then I tell them about all the studies out there that show that multi-tasking, except on a very shallow level, really does not exist, and that all the evidence is that once you've been distracted it takes you 15 minutes to get back on task. Laptops are not the problem here; the university's stupid, stupid decision to provide universal wifi access is the problem. Because they can be doing their best to take notes, and then a friend IMs them or they forget where they are and just check their email and suddenly they're miles away.

    The solution however is in their hands. By all means bring your laptop to class. but TURN OFF YOUR WIFI ACCESS. This will not stop you from checking email or Facebook or youtube or whatever the hell if you really want to spend your class time that way, I tell them, because you can always turn it back on again.

    But you won't be interrupted by friends' emails, and if you do absent-mindedly click on Facebook it won't work, and you'll haveto go through an extra step to turn it on again; and that little extra step will remind you that you meant to be paying attention to the class.

    So once I have warned them of the dangers of distraction, and told them how, in my experience, they can guard themselves against it, I figure I've given them the tools and it is now up to them.

    Now, I do my best to give good lectures, too. But I'm not a performing seal and I don't think I should have to be. They are here to get an education, not a vaudeville show.

  7. Ha. I don't put my lecture notes on the web. I don't provide them to the students. I don't allow any technology in class. And if a student starts sleeping or texting they're marked absent.

    The very least they will take away from my class is the ability to pretend to be interested. Which is actually a very valuable ability to have.

  8. "I do my best to give good lectures, too. But I'm not a performing seal and I don't think I should have to be. They are here to get an education, not a vaudeville show."<---- me like it a lot :-) I have finally received those precious student evaluations. The main theme this year is [in addition to too-much-work comments, of course] "physics professor is not entertaining enough". I swear that's word-to-word comment.

  9. ...."physics professor is not entertaining enough."

    Sweet Soviet Christ, you don't take Physics to be entertained....these geeks want entertainment, they should fly to Vegas and watch Penn and Teller's magic show! Forget going to Vegas, they should just stay in their dorms playing with themselves; they jack off on paper enough.

  10. First thing: be entertaining for the sake of yourself. Just to stay sane. If it helps them, great. If it doesn't, who cares? I even tell my students explicitly that my behavior will persist regardless of their reaction.

    Second thing: inattentive students will always have excuses. Facebook, email, the cute guy across the room, the flickering of the ancient fluorescent tube above them. They're all still excuses. They can pay attention in class and do well, or make excuses and do poorly.

    Maybe digital media make it easier to be distracted, just like fast food makes it easier to be obese. Maybe we would do better not to worry if they're distracted, and instead ensure that we offer them the opportunity to learn to focus on something substantial.

  11. It was clearly the professor's fault. If he were more exciting or innovative or engaging, then the students would have sat at his feet in rapt attention for 50 minutes and would have begged for more. Therefore, the fact that these scholars are disengaged enough to check a mindless medium such as facebook is pretty damning to this instructor!


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