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.