Students are just [not] like they used to be — Mary Louise McCallister (Faculty of Environment Teaching Fellow)

A few years ago when I was an undergraduate student (OK, it was the 1970s) I heard the following from another student in my class. I don’t recall if it was an eye-witness account or just a good story:

A professor was lecturing in a sonorous monotone at the front of a huge lecture hall. He was becoming increasingly frustrated by the apparent lack of interest exhibited by the meager group of students scattered throughout the room. One member of the class was slumped in a chair fast asleep right in front of the lecture podium. In an aggravated tone, the professor asked the student sitting next to his slumbering classmate to rouse his peer. Said student retorted, “YOU wake him up; you put him to sleep.”

I remember this story every time I read or hear about university instructors in North America and elsewhere worrying about how students these days are too easily distracted (often by mobile devices), seem to have poor listening skills and don’t have due regard for pursuing serious knowledge—not like when THEY were in school. Really? If so, these instructors were either much better students than I was (which might very well be true) or they were educated throughout university by star performers. I have a somewhat different perspective: while we did not have the smartphones and iPods, we did have other ways of tuning out uninspiring lecturers.

I discussed this perspective with one of my colleagues at the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark Morton, a renaissance kind of person, who has expertise in new educational technologies, but is also a scholar of Shakespeare, etymology, food culture, and arcane types of knowledge. It could persuasively be argued that the sentiment held by ‘learned professors’ about their students’ listening skills and lack of attention to scholarly pursuits has been going on throughout human history. As a case in point, Mark sent me the following quotation penned in the medieval ages. It’s anonymous, and found in a collection known as Carmina Burana 6, translated by George F. Whicher:

Learning that flowered in days of yore
In these our times is thought a bore.
Once knowledge was a well to drink of;
Now having fun is all men think of.
Today mere striplings grow astute
Before their beards begin to shoot –
Striplings whose truant dispositions
Are deaf to wisdom’s admonitions.
Yet it was true in ages past
No scholar paused from toil at last
Nor shrunk from studies the most weighty
Till his years numbered more than eighty. 
Florebat olim studium,
nunc vertitur in tedium;
iam scire diu viguit,
sed ludere prevaluit.
iam pueris astutia
contingit ante tempora,
qui per malivolentiam
excludunt sapientiam.
sed retro actis seculis
vix licuit discipulis
tandem nonagenarium
quiescere post studium.







Students have tuned out lectures tens of decades, or centuries, before Twitter was invented—they were just possibly somewhat less obvious about it. Nevertheless, today, academics and members of the media (as noted in this BBC piece) are increasingly sounding the alarm about how the conventional form of university education—the class lecture—is threatened by a combination of technological advances, mobile devices and MOOCs (massive open on-line courses). This situation is now stimulating a conversation around university teaching and how to ensure that it is both effective and relevant; how to foster ‘deep’ vs. ‘shallow’ learning; and how much ‘content-delivery’ is to be traded for ‘student-centred’ learning. The fact that such conversations are now taking place could certainly be seen as a positive development. I’ll be sharing some diverse perspectives about how university education is perceived, and is evolving (or not), as well as some innovative approaches to teaching in the context of this rapidly-changing learning environment.

In the meantime, here is a simple, but important teaching practice employed one of our colleagues, Prof. Kevin Markle in Accounting and Finance: memorize your students’ names in order to effectively engage their attention. Kevin does so by the first week of classes and he has 270 students. Click here to see how he manages it.

 [This post originally appeared on the Green TEA blog, and has been republished here with permission of the author]

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Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.