There is a nice post by Stephanie Chasteen over at The Active Class about students being distracted by laptops (and other technology) while in the classroom. Stehpanie suggests a solution of a social contract for the class. In this contract, the students can define appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.
I think this post brings up some very good discussion points.
Are Students Distracted in Class?
This shouldn’t even be a question. If you have been in a large “lecture” class, you should know that there are students in there that aren’t engaged. It isn’t hard to spot them. For me, this is even in a class that isn’t a straight “lecture” (but it is large). Instead of lecture, my large Physical Science class shows the students video experiments and then asks them multiple choice questions. The students discuss the experiments and their answers before voting with a student response system (using Learning Physical Science).
Yes, they are distracted. I don’t even understand why some of these students come to class. They surf on their phones or iPads or laptops. I am pretty sure some of them have even been watching movies or at least youtube or something. Why come to class if you aren’t going to really be there? That is my question. I even tell them that. There are no grading points for attendance or anything, so I just don’t get it.
I don’t stop students from doing stupid things in class as long as it doesn’t seem like they are bothering other students. Honestly, wouldn’t they be more comfortable watching movies on a nice soft couch instead these hard lecture desks? I have this suspicion that when I say attendance doesn’t count towards their grade, they think I am lying. They think that if they come all the time (or at least sign the attendance sheet all the time), I will at least give them a D or something. Or maybe they are afraid that if there aren’t many students on a particular day, I will hand out bonuses like that time Oprah gave everyone in the audience a car. It could happen, right? It’s not going to happen.
In regards to computers in class, it is obviously going to become more of a problem, not less. More and more students are using ebooks instead of paper-based books (and sometimes, they don’t even have a choice). There is a push to use technology (like tablets) in class because it shows progress (even if they tablets are used for silly things). Students have more and more access to their own technology – phones, google glasses…
Should I Stop Them?
This is the real question. If they are doing something destructive to their own learning, should I let them or stop them? One one hand, they are adults, right? They don’t HAVE to pass or even take this class. It is their decision to be in college and get a degree. Also, if I force them to pay attention, when will they learn how to make themselves pay attention?
On the other hand, perhaps it is my responsibility to force them to do what is right. Perhaps it is my responsibility to teach them with force (not THE FORCE). At some younger age, I guess students have to be forced to do things the right way. Also, at some point in the future, people have to be responsible for their own actions. So, where does a college level class go? I have always made the assumption that at some point before my class the students have crossed the line going from being forced to being an adult.
I like to consider my classes like a green vegetable. Green vegetables are great for your health. When kids are young, I make them eat their vegetables. If I left my kids alone to responsible for their own eating, I don’t know what they would eat (I am not sure I want to know).
Rules Without Consequences
Perhaps my best compromise is to make rules. I do this all the time. There is a rule that you have to come to class. There is also a rule that you have to do the homework (it’s says so in the syllabus). So, what happens if a student doesn’t come to class or doesn’t do the homework? Do they get a grade penalty? No, they perhaps won’t learn the material. This could lead to a low score on the exam – but the low score isn’t directly due to their lack of homework or attendance.
This is where I hear many faculty say something like “how can you expect them to come to class if you don’t show them how important it is with a grade”. I get what they are saying, but a grade should be a reflection of what they understand – not a reflection of their obedience. What if we applied the same idea to basketball? Players will do much better in a game if they practice more. What if I was a coach and gave the basketball players points towards a real game for practicing their free throw shots? This is essentially what a grade for homework or attendance does.
Next semester, I think I will try Stephanie’s advice. I am going to let the students themselves come up with the “rules”. If they feel like they have ownership over the rules, perhaps they will cary more weight.