In Class or In Prison?

College students are often bored by lectures. With their laptops open in front of them, and WiFi, they can express this boredom in a new way. Professors are unhappy. I got an email about this problem from someone who tries to improve teaching at UC Berkeley. It included what he called “excellent suggestions”:

  • Tell students to keep their laptops closed unless they are doing an online task that you assigned.
  • Set specific objectives for them to accomplish in their in-class laptop assignments, and hold them accountable-e.g., randomly ask students or teams to report their progress to the entire class.
  • Set tight time limits for these assignments.
  • Design these assignments for pairs, triads, or quads. Aside from the likely learning benefits, group work will help keep the students on task, as students will not be able to agree on a renegade web site.
  • Walk around the room and stand in the back to monitor their screens during these assignments.
  • Have students bring their laptops to class only on certain days, and tell them explicitly not to bring them the other days.
  • Mark students absent for the day if you catch them at a renegade site.
  • “Will not be able to agree on a renegade web site” — from an ancient Chinese book of maxims, I suppose. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education shows that the problem is widespread.

    Addendum: In response to this email, a professor replied:

    Today one of my GSIs informed me that several students were looking at internet porn during lecture. This not only proved a distraction but made several people uncomfortable. The GSI warned the student to close the site immediately and tried to get the names of the students. Of course, the students declined to give their names and one even just simply left class rather than be reprimanded further. Now I am left with the unpleasant, but necessary, task of trying to track down these students.

    2 Replies to “In Class or In Prison?”

    1. As a student I have a couple suggestions for lecturers who wish to increase attentiveness in science classes.

      1) Do not hand out copies of the notes. When I already know what a professor is going to cover it’s easy to take a superficial glance at the material and convince myself that I already know what they’re going to say. Also, a student who needs to record the material themselves won’t have time to devote to other distractions.

      2) Do not present from PowerPoint. Slides allow too much information to be thrown at a student at once and they won’t know what to pay attention to. Figures are almost always too complex to reproduce in notes, and slides are too verbose. If it’s not possible for the instructor to draw or write out a concept in the time alloted to it, the student won’t be able to either.

      3) Show partial derivations, including algebra. It’s often obvious to an expert in the field what simplifying assumptions can be made for a problem, but when it’s first introduced to a student these can be huge road blocks in their understanding. A lecture I can follow is much more interesting than one where I become lost.

      4) Finally, take a hard line from the beginning. Confront students who have open laptops or other distractions as soon as they’re noticed. Lectures should be attended voluntarily, if students don’t want to pay attention they shouldn’t be present.

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