Distracted Students: Time for Us to Re-focus — Christine Zaza

Hands holding a smart phoneIn today’s university classrooms it is common to see students distracted by their laptops, tablets, phones, or smart watches.  Although they are physically present, those who are distracted by technology are not always psychologically or socially present or engaged in learning.  This is a widespread problem despite the growing body of research which shows that off-task multi-tasking with technology during class is detrimental to a student’s learning and to the learning of those around them.  Teaching distracted, disengaged students is leaving many instructors frustrated, discouraged, and deflated.

In their attempt to restore the learning environment, some instructors, and even some institutions, are banning laptops in their classes.  At the University of Waterloo, banning laptops in class is not an option because that practice not only violates UWaterloo’s Policy on Behaviour (Policy 33), it also violates provincial legislation (AODA and Ontario Human Rights).  (See the CTE Teaching Tip Sheet Laptops in the Classroom: Virtue or Vice.)  Although banning technology in class isn’t an option, instructors can ask students who use technology in class to sit in designated areas (e.g., sitting on the sides of the lecture hall) so that they don’t disturb others who are not using technology.

It is tempting to focus our attention and frustration on students, but students aren’t the only ones distracted by technology.  Faculty and staff are too, and they are sometimes distracted by technology at meetings, conferences, and other professional events.  Yet in those settings, this behaviour seems to go unquestioned.  Outside of the university environment, it has become the norm to be distracted by technology in the car, over dinner, at soccer games, grocery stores, etc.  With these ever-present distractions, the demands for self-regulation seem to be higher for all of us now that we have access to the entire world in the palm of our hand.   Many of today’s technological communications tools use persuasive techniques that make it harder for many of us to sustain uninterrupted focus.  It has become socially acceptable to disrupt our face-to-face interactions in order to communicate with friends and family via technology.  The problem is so prevalent that some people are turning to technology to help them block distractions from technology.  For example, Freedom is a technology-blocking app that allows individuals to block distractions on their electronic devices for selected periods of time, and the demand for this type of technology seems to be growing as people strive to regain control of their time and attention.

It is natural for teachers to want students to live up to their learning potential.  However, it’s easy to forget that students are mature adults who are ultimately responsible for their own education.  In discussing the problem of students distracted by technology in class, I have four recommendations to propose:

First, we should stop referring to technology as though it is a single entity which has only negative effects.  Technology can be used to improve student engagement in class, and it can be used to improve learning and facilitate communication, among other things.

Second, we should make the distinction between brief, minor distractions (e.g., quickly checking for or responding to a text, looking up a word in an online dictionary, checking a schedule or schedule reminder) and major, more disruptive distractions (e.g., watching videos or movies, playing video games, online shopping, engaging in lengthy chats in social media, etc.).

Third, we should apply the same standards and expectations to the entire campus community as we apply to students.   I have yet to hear anyone talk about implementing designated seating for technology users at staff and faculty meetings.

Fourth, we should use an ecological model as a framework for thinking about how to address this problem.  We can’t expect students to change their individual behaviour with technology without also considering the context in which they are choosing that behaviour and the larger context of the social norms which influence behaviour.

Rather than focusing on distracted students, let’s involve students in conversations about how technology-related distraction affects our campus community and what we should do about it.


Christine Zaza is CTE’s Faculty Liaison for Applied Health Sciences, Psychology, Sociology & Legal Studies, and Support Units.
Photo courtesy of Open Arms (Creative Commons License).

Presenting and Recording Notes Using a Tablet – Carsen Banister

onenoteTablet technology has been available to consumers since the 1990s, but was not originally heavily adopted. New generation tablets, most of which are designed without dedicated keyboards, are becoming more common.

I am currently taking a Graduate course with an instructor that uses a tablet to present his lecture content. The environment created is very similar to the typical blackboard or whiteboard classroom, but instead the instructor’s laptop screen is projected for the students to follow. I am recording notes for this class in the same way, using my tablet to reproduce what is being created on the projector. For both of these applications, tablets provide some advantages over traditional methods, but also introduce some drawbacks.

As a note-giver
From a lecture or presentation perspective, a tablet simplifies many of the activities required, such as eliminating the need to erase the board, allowing the marking up of images, and offering many drawing tools, such as coloured inks of varying thicknesses. With the addition of a desktop recording software, the lecture can be recorded and saved to the class website. Students are able to review these screen-castings and catch up on content they missed. This can be particularly helpful for graduate students, where travel to conferences can interfere with a class schedule.

Many of these advantages also have direct disadvantages, such as reducing the movement of the instructor in the classroom. Since the tablet is typically used at a podium, the instructor will remain rooted here during the lesson. It is much harder to interact and gesture with a projection screen than a blackboard. This reduced movement can impact the interactivity of the class, confining it to a style of note-copying rather than getting input and involvement from the students. Although no erasing is required, the screen is much smaller than a collection of blackboards, so less content can be shown at one time. This can hinder students’ ability to visualize the progression of course material and make connections.

As instructors, we should be aware of these advantages and disadvantages because our choice of presentation method affects all members of the class. Switching perspective now to the role of student, a tablet and note-taking software can also be used to record notes, regardless of the method of presentation.

As a note-taker
I have used this method for a couple equation-intensive engineering courses and, as expected, also found some advantages to be balanced by drawbacks. A strong benefit I have found is the high speed of typing compared to writing. In courses with a lot of text note-taking, a lot of time can be saved. An added benefit is being able to look up while recording these notes, something that is not easy when writing on paper. This allows for more focus during the lesson and less time bogged down blindly copying notes.

I don’t find drawing on a tablet faster than on paper, but the added tools do provide benefit. Being able to draw shapes or axes with a couple clicks saves time and improves quality. Drawings can also be modified after they are created, rather than having to pull out an eraser and start over. For mathematical equations, there is a choice to write it out in full or use a built-in equation editor to type the equation. The latter option provides a nice appearance that is less likely to be misread in the future, but it requires some getting used to and can be slower than the former method.

Recording all the content digitally means that it can be easily searched using keywords, even handwriting in many software packages. This can save time if you need to find something quickly and don’t want to look through all your notes. But being able to leaf through your notes is exactly what you lose when going digital. No longer can you quickly flip through them to look for a key image or figure.

A major concern with taking notes electronically is the reliance on electronics and electricity. What if your computer crashes during a lecture? What if you don’t have an electricity source for the 3 hours of class coming up? A backup is always required in case your tablet is unavailable. A pencil and paper don’t have these technical limitations and are much more reliable.

Although it may not be reasonable to expect tablets to replace pencil and paper or chalk and blackboard, they have established a place in the classroom. In both cases, there is a significant learning curve when beginning to deliver or take notes using a tablet. If you want to start using this technology in the classroom, take the time to become comfortable with it before taking the leap!

…and so it goes – Trevor Holmes

Bit of a dry spell on the blog this term! We’ll try to be more regular.

So I’m sure readers have been holding their collective breath, awaiting eagerly my update from the first day of class a couple of Fridays ago. That’s right: in my first blog post of 2011, I imagined a perfect pedagogical storm of a first day. I did do what I intended to. Many of the students in lecture contributed good thoughts to the definition of culture we were coming up with, collectively. They didn’t seem to tire of the pairs of images so much as previous years’ cohorts have. And in tutorials, when confronted again with some of the same images, they deepened their analysis still more, becoming comfortable with each other in the smaller setting. I even had them fill out tutorial logs at the end of each tutorial, so those who didn’t get a chance to contribute could let us know what they were thinking. Continue reading …and so it goes – Trevor Holmes

Restoring attention and memory by disconnecting?

Montserrat Hermitage
Catalonian Hermitage

For some time now, I’ve been (along with certain friends and colleagues) advocating for at least occasional Slow experiences in higher education teaching and learning. Somewhat akin to Slow food (which of course has its detractors, Continue reading Restoring attention and memory by disconnecting?

Twittering and Continuous Partial Attention – Trevor Holmes

For a week, I’ve been Twittering. Normally, Mark Morton (intrepid voyager in neotechnology-land) would be the jolly fellow bringing you glad tidings of great techno-teaching joy. Having experimented for something like fifteen years in the classroom, though, I thought it would be fun to continue my Early Adopter mentality and change up my own course this coming Winter term over at That Other University down the street, adding a bunch of social networking tools that had previously existed in partial form or by accident in Cultural Studies 101. Continue reading Twittering and Continuous Partial Attention – Trevor Holmes

Laptops and Student Learning – Katherine Lithgow

tux_dell_laptop_11I was involved recently in an interesting email “discussion” prompted by a query from a professor interested in how other profs manage student conduct in class.  The professor had been experiencing a significant number of students using their laptops, cell phones, and iPods during the lecture and was asking for suggestions on how other instructors were addressing situations where students were using laptops during classes to answer emails, look at unrelated web sites, play games etc.   Continue reading Laptops and Student Learning – Katherine Lithgow

Of lectures and laptops: civility and engagement, Part 1 – Trevor Holmes

A couple of years ago, I asked someone who kept falling asleep or listening to his iPod during my lectures (even though I break things up with “activities” every 20 minutes or so) why he didn’t just stay in his residence room. He said he always went to lectures in case he might pick up something by osmosis. I’m not blaming the student here — just reminding myself that not every second of my craft needs to be gripping to every single student! The increasing use of laptops in class (especially for MSN, Facebook, YouTube, and other non-course-related stuff) is, however, a very public display of what some would call incivility, or inappropriate behaviour amongst lecture attendees.

For the past two days (predictably — it’s the end of term and who doesn’t need a break from grading?) the main discussion list for the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education has been awash in opinions about boring professors and unengaged students. The topic began as a question about banning laptops. Of course banning laptops sounds good to those of us who teach or have observed large first year courses. Until you remember the doodles we did, notes we passed, and other things we did during certain lectures in our own freshman years. Until you remember that some students require laptops to help accommodate disabilities, and banning everyone else’s laptops would “out” them to their classmates. Some good advice came in the form of “use the laptops that show up in class” — which is what I try to do, especially given the possibilities of Web 2.0 tools — and we did get a great reference to an issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning about this very topic in different disciplines. A quick search of the blogosphere revealed a Chronicle of Higher Education article about this topic too.

This is about more than laptops though.

What concerns me most about the discussion, I think, is that what started as a “blame the lazy millennials” for their lack of civility became a “blame the unprofessional professors” for their inability to keep people awake with entertaining cartwheels (I think I’ll try cartwheels this Winter in my class of 160 students). Blame the students or blame the professors. Pick your side.

I’m simplifying things, but only a little. At least two posters so far have placed the blame for disengaged students squarely on the shoulders of the professors. Ironically, this happens the same day that we find out the data on why students are at university in Ontario and at Waterloo in particular. Sure, 42% really want to be here in an engaged way. Fewer than half. Just over a fifth come because they think they have to, and another fifth have no idea why they bothered. Luckily, a fifth still want to change the world.

The same holds true of informal polls in a couple of first year courses my spouse and I have taught at another university — fully half the students each year claim not really to want to be at university at all, and cite peer pressure, parental pressure, or just aimlessness as their only reasons to bother going for a degree.

And yet it’s up to us to engage every one of them? Surely, surely it’s a shared responsibility! As a student in the 1980s, when I faced a so-called “boring” lecturer, I saw it as my job to FIND something interesting in the lecture. I was free to leave if I couldn’t. And I knew (as a Trent student) that we’d have a lively tutorial after even the most mind-numbing lecture (there really weren’t many of these; virtually all my lectures in first year were top-notch, and they were delivered by tenured professors, who also ran the tutorial discussions).

This leads me to reflect on the data-driven findings of the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Washington, three members of which visited UW last Friday for the annual Physics Teaching Day, organised by Rohan Jayasundera. They have found time and time again that students CAN in fact improve markedly on basic understandings of fundamental physics concepts through guided inquiry and guided tutorials. This seems to square with the Harvard research on “interactive engagement” techniques (now with clickers) in large lectures. More on next term…