I Know…Let’s Blame the Students

Sometimes it seems to me that whenever things go wrong in college teaching, the first impulse of the professor is to blame the students. They aren’t prepared for class. They don’t want to grapple with the hard concepts. They don’t want to read what I assign. They do all their work at the last minute.

And now, apparently, laptop computers in class have caused them to stop paying attention.

We’ve all seen it. The student with a laptop who has clearly checked out of lecture. Is he reading his email? Is she chatting with a friend? Is he playing World of Warcraft? And then there are the other students peering covertly or openly at the open screen.

I’m sorry to report that laptops aren’t the problem, nor are students. As Pogo said so many years ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

I’m still not sure how it is that people with advanced degrees that require them to develop sophisticated research skills can so casually ignore mountains of research by serious cognitive scientists that demonstrates unequivocally that lecturing is one of the worst forms of teaching (if the quality of teaching is measured by learning).

A simple summary of that research — and I’ve read a lot of it lately — could be called the 20/20 rule. Study after study shows that when students are lectured at their attention drifts very rapidly and that 20 minutes is about all their brains can tolerate. After 20 minutes, these studies show that the majority of students are somewhere else, with our without the aid of a laptop. And study after study shows that students (even the brightest and most attentive) retain, on average, about 20% of what is told to them in lecture. For a good summary of this research, see Lion F. Gardiner, “Why We Must Change: The Research Evidence,” Thought & Action 14/1 (1998): 71-88.

So instead of blaming our students for wandering away on their laptops, I think it’s time we looked a little more closely in the mirror and asked ourselves why they wander off. That, of course, would require us to admit that too often we (me included more than I’d care to admit) follow the path of least resistance and stand at the front of the room and talk while they take notes. Like any addiction, lecturing is a hard habit to break. If it were easy to stop, I’d have junked all of my lectures by now instead of something like two-thirds. But I’m getting there.

Some like to argue that what I’ve just pointed out is rooted in idealism that can’t be matched by the practicalities of teaching to large classes. Nice try, I say, because plenty of talented educators have figured out how to engage students in active learning even in large lecture halls. Perhaps the best example I know of is Dennis Jacobs, a professor of Chemistry at Notre Dame, whose work on active learning in large lecture classes has earned him many awards, not the least of which is the CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year award. If Dennis can do it in introductory Chemistry, I guess I don’t understand why we can’t do it in the freshman History survey.

So let’s take a step back and stop blaming our students (and their laptops). Doing so will force us to think more carefully about our own teaching practice and how we (as opposed to they) might improve.

14 thoughts on “I Know…Let’s Blame the Students

  1. Ethan Watrall

    While I agree with pretty much everything you say, I’m also a little bothered by the subtext of your thoughts (or perhaps I’m just perceiving subtext). It seems to have become unfashionable in the digital pedagogy crowd to expect that students have as much of a responsibility to create a successful and healthy classroom as professors. That doesn’t mean that we should be let off the hook – we shouldn’t be (not by any stretch of the imagination). However, students should be just as much on the hook as we are.

  2. Marjorie Florestal

    You raise some great points. I’m a law professor, and we don’t do much lecturing in our classroom. Even with a class of over 100, we use the “Socratic Method,” which certainly has its detractors but it does force students to pay attention. The problem I’ve seen with using laptops is not so much that student attention wanders–although, of course it does! My attention wanders too when I’m listening to a talk, watching a movie, listening to my partner : ) Most of us can return our attention to the issue so long as what is going on is sufficiently engaging. No, the problem I see with laptops is that students attempt to take down my socratic dialogue with one of their (unfortunate?) colleagues verbatim. Typing is easier & faster than writing, so they don’t use discretion to filter out what might be extraneous. They take dictation rather than notes. This mainly happens in my first year class, and I find after a few weeks students take care of the problem themselves: many leave their laptops behind in favor of paper and pen.

  3. Mills Post author

    Thanks for these first returns on my post. I certainly don’t want to suggest that students have no responsibility for creating a healthy classroom environment…far from it! In fact, I’ve found that once I switch from lecture mode to active learning mode for the students it becomes much more necessary to discuss what their responsibilities are. Sitting quietly and taking notes is easy…knowing how to be part of a group or paired discussion is much more difficult, just to cite one example. For this reason, I spend a fair amount of time at the beginning of the semester modeling the kind of behavior I expect and asking them to help us set some parameters.

    As for students taking dictation, that made me smile because I often have to say “Stop writing. Just listen!”, especially in my first year courses. As much as possible I try to help them learn how to be selective in what they record–whether on a laptop or with a pen or pencil. Being judicious about note taking/information acquisition, it seems to me, is a very useful skill that transcends academic disciplines.

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  5. Derek Bruff

    Very provocative post, Mills. It serves as a nice counterpoint to the Washington Post article. I worry, however, about the idea that lectures should be “junked” entirely. I’d rather have instructors think more intentionally about when lectures are appropriate (given one’s learning goals and students) and how to make them more effective.

    For example, I know that Dennis Jacobs, who, as you point out, has made active learning work very well in very large courses, does indeed lecture a little. But instead of leading off with a lecture, he creates a “time for telling” through active learning techniques.

    For instance, Dennis might have students predict the outcome of a front-of-the-classroom demonstration (using clicker-facilitated small group discussions). When Dennis performs the demonstration and his students see that most of their predictions were wrong, Dennis has created a “time for telling.” At that point, a 10-minute explanation of the demonstration (a “lecture”) works very well. The students are cognitively ready for the explanation (since they’ve already been thinking about the demo) and affectively ready (since they want to know why they were all wrong).

    A well-timed explanation from an expert can be very useful for student learning, but if a “time for telling” hasn’t been created, then that explanation might not do any good.

    Two other quick points: Your note about attention span is on the money, and it argues for “mini-lectures” of 10-20 minutes when lectures are used.

    The comments about student note-taking are insightful, as well. Here’s a great post exploring the potential benefits of taking notes via concept maps instead of verbal transcriptions: http://cte-blog.uwaterloo.ca/?p=956,

  6. Curt Fiedler

    No doubt lecturers have to use better tools to get their information across. But expecting first or second year students to do it in all subjects is ridiculous. I can’t say for liberal arts courses, but for the sciences – lectures are an important teaching tool. Instructors are the bridge between the students and material/textbook. And speaking, showing, illustrating concepts – these things are all part of lectures. LABS are where students (at least in my discipline) get their reinforcement by participation.

    I teach biology and chemistry, and it’s very clear all but the most gifted or experienced students need a lecture for a large portion of the material. Chemistry is different than biology, because students have to become proficient with various calculations. You have to be interactive in that discpline. But you also have to show them the concepts behind the calculations. They aren’t going to figure that out on their own.

    As for attention spans being poor, and retention of only 20% – is that so surprising? The latter (20%) isn’t new, and is why most students need to review notes, text, or whatever materials they have to learn these concepts. As for attention spans – what do you expect from Americans these days? Our society has systematically lowered standards and expectations to the point where we are not competitive with other developed (and many undeveloped) countries in technical academic fields.

    Laptop use in lectures (except for note taking) is a symptom of the problem. And the problem is societal. We’ve become mostly a nation of consumers, not makers and do-ers. And that laziness is there at all levels of the education spectrum. We are too busy worried about “Idol” to get our acts together.

  7. Brent Anders

    Some very good points here. Not just by you professor Kelly but also by those posting as well. I have a couple of comments to add.

    Would you happen to know a website where I could get more information on the specific pedagogy that Dennis Jacobs uses for his large classes.

    I find this a very interesting post in that I teach a course for the Army called ABIC (Army Basic Instructors Course). It is a mandatory course for any soldier that is to be assigned as an official military instructor. It is an 80 hour course that teaches a lot about what has been discussed here: engagement and interaction. Yet there are other components that are also important that I find many instructors/professors often forget about. Simple things such as active listening, mannerisms, confidence, voice pitch and tone go a long way in make the “lecture” or presentation much more enjoyable, understandable, bearable and educational.

    Another big component that is also vitally important and one that I believe is still valid with regards to Curt Fiedler’s comments is that of motivation. In my course I teach soldiers that the very first thing to be presented is a motivational opening. Something to grab the students attention as well as to show them why this block of instruction is important and should be learned. Weather it is for mathmatics, chemistry, English, history, or hand-to-hand combat; people need to know the “why,” and the “so what.”

    Thank you and great blog.

  8. Derek Bruff

    @Brent: Dennis Jacobs regularly gives presentations about his approach to teaching introductory chemistry. However, he hasn’t written it up since the early days of developing the pedagogy. Frankly, I think the best description of what makes his pedagogy tick is in my book, Teaching with Classroom Response Systems. Pages 27-29 feature a description of his approach. If you “look inside!” the book on Amazon (http://is.gd/alPlM) and search for “jacobs” you can read those pages.

  9. Nabeel Siddiqui

    As a student, I have often dropped courses where teachers have banned laptops. I have used my laptop since freshman year and I do not take notes verbatim. The problem is that students are not taught techniques for taking notes on laptops. Instead, they usually just open up a word processing program and start typing. As an undergraduate, I slowly learned to use outlining programs or mind mapping programs to take notes, which I believe have been far superior from my peers. Yet, instead of embracing the increased usability of laptops and computers, professors have attempted to use a ridiculously reactionary argument to maintain the method that they have always used.

    The method of learning is no different in kindergarten than it is in graduate courses. Almost no one would argue that children should be lectured to in kindergarten. Instead, the need for hands on activity determines the success of the education. Parents searching for schools for their children look to see if their child’s future teacher is engaged with the students. I have no doubt that if elementary educators simply lectured that the quality of their education would diminish. Yet, professors do the same thing and no one cares.

    I agree that lecturing is becoming a ridiculous form of teaching for upper class and graduate courses. Due to the “basic” undergraduate courses universities require students to take, a professor often has no choice but to provide a lecture. These lectures are usually nothing more than a basic PowerPoint presentation. When students are given the option to download these PowerPoint presentations on the Internet, they are less likely to come to class. While some may blame the students, it is the teachers responsibility to elaborate the information. If students feel they are getting the same learning experience from a PowerPoint slide as they are in the classroom, it is a waste of not only the student’s time but the professor’s time also.

    Professors and teachers need to embrace new methods of teaching. Laptops allow for students not only to engage in their classroom community but provide information to society as a whole. Wikis, virtual reality simulations, collaborative research through the Internet, etc. should not be demonized but embraced. The idea that laptops are the reason that students are losing attention is ridiculous. If anything, students’ use of laptops show that they are in need of new and more modern forms of learning and teachers are unwilling to accommodate them.

  10. Mills Post author

    Thanks to all who have been commenting on this post.

    I want to pick up on something Nabeel wrote about students just downloading slideware lecture material rather than going to class. Not long ago I attended a talk by an engineering professor from New Zealand who was talking about his department’s experience with podcasting lectures in one of their introductory required courses. What they noticed across three sections of the course was that as the semester progressed (especially after the midterm) attendance dropped to almost zero in what were large lecture courses. When they checked the download logs on the podcasts of the lectures what they found was that the vast majority of the downloads happened in the last week of the semester. In other words, the students simply blew off the course until the last week, downloaded the lectures and listened to them just before the exam.

    Not surprisingly, they were very interested to see how the students who had stopped coming to class (the vast majority) did on the common exam given by the department. To their surprise, student results were consistent with the previous semesters’ results.

    In his presentation, he pointed out that his colleagues drew two different conclusions from these data: what’s wrong with our teaching that students don’t have to come to class to do well, and, oh boy, I can just go into a studio in the summer, podcast all my lectures, post them online, and spend the rest of the semester in the lab!

    Whether you subscribe to the former or latter of these conclusions, the data they gathered are pretty strong proof that lecturing has some serious problems. If neither the professor nor the students actually have to be there in the room together, then I could hire my 13 year-old to record my lectures for me and I could spend more time in the library!

    Two years ago this month I wrote a series of posts in which I argued for a substantial rethinking of how we deliver the first two years of the college experience to our students. If we are going to keep lecturing at them in ever larger classrooms, then I stand by what I wrote then.

  11. Peter Knupfer

    There is no substitute for having a field expert in the class to help guide the students’ activities with the subject, but it follows necessarily from that observation that the tool that is absolutely essential to the writing of history needs to be a part of the classroom experience as well. I tell my students to bring their machines because we’re going to put them to work. Any laptop open in my classroom is a “public” resource: its operator can be called on at any time to assist with the instruction — to research a question, share an answer, work on a project. And then I structure the class’s learning activities around researching, discussing, and noting the historical questions and issues behind the day’s instruction. No distractions, no off-task issues, no fears about not being the center of attention. The students, not I, are bearing the burden of the work, I’m liberated from the script and able to move about the room asking, helping, challenging them.

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