Have you ever struggled with a pedagogical problem, only to discover that someone two offices away resolved it in her class last term?
Introducing Consult your Colleagues, an anonymous advice column for issues that arise in your teaching. E-mail me your questions: I promise to keep them in confidence. I’ll do the same for responses, but only if you ask me to.
Today’s question comes from a colleague struggling with students working on their computers during class, evidently preoccupied, multitasking and ‘tuned out’ during lectures and class discussion. The question: Should I ban laptops, or adopt some other strategy for students who seem distracted by them? It’s a tempting response, even for the most technophilic among us. The last e-mail my late colleague Victor Ramraj wrote me, this summer, was about this article: “To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand.”
Our first response to the question comes from Mryka Hall-Beyer (Geography):
The courses I teach are technical: I want to model critical use of network information and more importantly data acquisition, so laptops (ipads, iphones, etc.) in class are fine, advantageous even. I ask that students be mainly concerned with not bothering their neighbours, and to be very aware that the distraction/multitasking levels of other people may be very different from their own. So if someone objects, don’t take it as a personal affront but instead be ready to move to another part of the room where the surrounding people are less distracted. Ask. Tell.
I find that students are perfectly happy to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” but have very little imagination as to other people’s “do unto you” might be quite different!
I have only had one difficult incident with a laptop in class, resolved by a conversation, not a general rule. Class of about 75.
Students can be quite confident about their multitasking skills, but here’s an exercise that might convince them otherwise. I learned it (I think) from a CBC Spark podcast. Ask your students to say the first 7 letters of the alphabet: A-B-C-D-E-F-G. Then to rattle off their phone number: 2-2-0-4-6-5-6. How long did that take you, 20 seconds? Now try alternating between them, one at a time: A-2-B-2-C-0-D-4… It takes much longer because of the constant switching.
My ever-sagacious colleague in English, Margaret Hadley, adds:
I put these students to work, use them as resources for looking up a meaning of a word, a biography, dates, something quickly found.
This accomplishes three things: it does not embarrass them (or me), it brings their attention back to the class, and it reminds everyone of the appropriate use of electronic devices in the classroom. Of course, this isn’t always a remedy for every student, but it is satisfying when it does work. And afterwards I can give my light little lecture on staying focused in class without seeming such a spoil sport.
I like that, a “little light lecture” on focused attention. Many people agreed that that was our job, to uphold and foster the value of doing just one thing at a time, of deep immersion in a single subject, or text, or idea.
Our next response comes from Michael Adorjan (Sociology):
[It’s] Probably best not to think in dichotomous terms about technology in the classroom. The laptop isn’t technology to students, it’s a third arm. Best to be clear at the beginning of a course about expectations and that students agreeing to take a course are in tacit agreement with the proposals in the syllabus. This is what I’m including on my syllabi this term:
Students are encouraged to bring their electronic devices to class (e.g. laptops, smartphones, tablets, etc.) to assist with note taking and learning. Students are expected NOT to distract other students by watching any videos or engaging in any video chats, answering phone calls (unless emergencies), playing video games, or any other activity that would distract other students either through audio or video content. All devices must be set to buzzer or silent mode during the lecture.
[W]hether laptop use is in fact detrimental to learning is an interesting question that I would suggest taking up with students themselves. I think one of the issues is that note taking effectiveness and learning is stymied by the well known multi-tasking that takes place on laptops. In short, I don’t think we can reverse the current, but we can channel it.
For what it’s worth, my own laptop policy is similar, but shorter:
Laptop computers will be allowed in class only if you use them to take notes, follow along with classroom demonstrations, or other course-related purposes. Those who cause a distraction by using them for any other purpose will have this privilege withdrawn.
And like Michael and Mryka, I’ve found it’s best to have a conversation with students about mutual expectations. Students will appreciate that you think about the issue, and — as in any relationship, really — raising problems is the best way to resolve them. Students may also be surprised to learn that professors aren’t oblivious to their facial expressions, when their smirks or furrowed brows betray their amusement or preoccupation with what’s onscreen, particularly when it’s at odds with what the class discussion is about.
What’s the student perspective? As Michael wrote, “most students respect a professor who respects students in kind.” Here’s what our student member on the Teaching + Learning Committee had to say:
I have been in a class where laptops are banned. It did not [detract] from my learning, although I know that some students were turned away from the class for that reason. The issue then would be deterring students from classes that could be required or of interest to them with a ban. However, if they are deterred that easily, they might not really be that interested.
I use a laptop to take notes in most of my classes. Especially with profs who speak very quickly, typing notes can be an asset–though this usually means taking down everything and synthesizing the material afterwards.
[…] I think the idea of laptop policies and ways of using technology is a good one, it encourages a good environment for all students. Ultimately, students’ learning is our own responsibility. We can disengage ourselves from class without technology by doodling, daydreaming, etc. Therefore, from a student perspective, I would be overall anti-ban.
Thanks to all for a lively discussion. If you’d like to weigh in, add your comments below or send me a direct e-mail.
I’m also looking for questions and topics for next time. I’ll treat all submissions as anonymous, and will do the same for your responses if you ask me to.
Here are some questions that your colleagues have asked:
- How would you adapt a course designed for 40 students if you suddenly discovered that, due to an administrative error, it has 60, 75 or 100 students enrolled?
- How have you made unsuitable classrooms fit your teaching style, instead of changing your style for the room? For instance, if you need movable desks but you’re assigned a room without them, or you’re running discussions in a long narrow room where there’s no space to re-group the desks.