Teaching

Another argument against laptops in the classroom (essay)

So, with all the controversy swirling around students’ use of laptops in the classroom, have you decided to prohibit them or not?

Advocates of allowing laptops took a took a punch in the gut with a recent study out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finding that students -- unable to resist the Sirens of the internet during class -- performed better when laptops were not permitted in the classroom.

Of course, as with critical-thinking courses and outcomes assessment, everyone and their dean has a theory on the subject. As a longtime advocate of permitting laptops, my intuition has been that we who took notes by hand back in the age of pens and paper simply can’t appreciate that keyboard note taking is more efficient for today’s students weaned on computers. I concede the high distractibility quotient of laptops and can accept the MIT study’s claim that they depress performance. I’m just not persuaded that our students are scampering around cyberspace at a much higher rate and to a significantly worse effect than in the days of yore when we daydreamed, doodled and passed notes in class.

And I’m not convinced that, at the level of higher education, efforts to enforce attention aren’t a bit too paternalistic. Perhaps banning laptops deprives the internet surfer of the important life lesson that, in the end, cutting corners has consequences.

Given that, why have I now changed my mind and defected to the opponents of laptops in the classroom?

Because, almost without fail, when I call on a student who’s been clacking away taking notes during class to apply a rule or concept under discussion, their eyes instantly dart down to the laptop screen in front of them as they scroll through the notes they’ve just taken to find the answer. One would have thought I’d asked a court reporter to read the last sentence back. Since the question normally requires the student to use, rather than simply repeat, material they’ve just typed into their machine, they do not find the answer and set off on a futile treasure hunt through all their notes to locate it.

My best guess is that today’s students’ keyboard skills are sufficient to allow them to mindlessly record what’s said in class, like a secretary too hurriedly taking dictation to think about what’s actually being said.

I haven’t been a student myself lately (as the allusion to secretaries taking dictation makes pretty clear), but I don’t recall being able by hand to record verbatim what was being discussed in class. Instead, I believe we were forced -- due to the relatively slow rate at which one can take handwritten notes -- to grasp, paraphrase and summarize in more or less outline form the information we were taking down. Laptops may, in other words, convert students into tape recorders whereby learning is postponed till whenever the transcript of a class is reviewed, corrupted by imperfections in the transcripts and impeded by the resultant inability to ask questions in class. Paradoxically then, inefficiency in the speed of note taking may help infuse an understanding of the subject matter into the notes.

I will break the news of my defection to the dark side of the laptop issue to future classes in the following way: effective note taking is not a one-step process where classroom content travels directly into your laptop via your hands, which, it appears to me, is the natural route of laptop note taking. Instead, it is a two-step process where the material must first travel through your mind, to be inspected and rewrapped, and only then recorded via your hands.

A neuroscientist may well cringe at my explanation. On the other hand, without the benefit of the better of the two note-taking methods, he or she may have had a harder time becoming a neuroscientist in the first place.

Jay Sterling Silver is a law professor at St. Thomas University School of Law.

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How your dissertation can influence your teaching (essay)

My dissertation influences my teaching not so much through its content but by the lessons I learned writing it, says Peter Wayne Moe.

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Three ways to make teaching evaluations more effective (essay)

Talk to any instructor about student evaluations, and our shared unease is almost universally immediate, writes Annelise Heinz, who provides three basic recommendation to improve the evaluation process.

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Students focus too much on grades to the detriment of learning (essay)

One of my engineering students came to see me recently asking to drop a class late. That was not an unusual request, and since it was shortly after the deadline I was prepared to approve it. But before I did, we talked, and our conversation went right to the heart of an issue I suspect many bright college students are facing: fear of failing to be perfect, ideally an effortless perfection, versus the joy of learning.

The student explained that she had done poorly on the first midterm exam. When I asked her why she did poorly she responded, “I underestimated how much effort it would take; I thought I could get an A without studying.” Though she believed she could still put in effort and raise her grade before the end of the term, she wanted to drop the course so she could retake it and get an A.

The kicker was the class was not required -- it was Russian literature. I asked her, “Rather than retaking this class, wouldn’t you be better off putting your effort into a class you find more engaging?” And her response caught me by surprise. She liked the course and found the readings interesting. Her lack of effort did not reflect a lack of engagement but rather a desire to minimize her effort.

This issue can be a big problem for those bright students who have done very well academically in high school with relatively little effort. The young woman asking to drop Russian literature was one of them.

The reasoning she used revealed a pattern of thinking that explains why many students struggle academically during their transition to college: they are simply focusing their attention on the wrong outcome. It’s understandable why so much emphasis is placed on the measurement of their performance, GPA. Without an exceptional record in high school, their chances of getting accepted into an elite university are slim. With so much at stake, they can’t afford to not focus on reaching the main goal. Yet while these students think they’re keeping their eyes on the ball, they are actually just staring at the scoreboard.

For students who found high school relatively easy, staring at the measurement of their performance is affirming. Even more affirming is the gap between their outcomes, in the form of grades, and their input, in the form of effort. The wider the gap, the smarter they feel, and this group of students is used to seeing a wide gap. The problem with that way of thinking is that it creates an inverse relationship between grades and effort. When their grades exceed their effort, they feel smart, and the wider the gap, the smarter they feel. But when their effort exceeds their grades, which can happen as they transition from high school to college, they feel dumb, and the wider this new gap the dumber they feel. This inverse relationship creates an inherent motivation to minimize effort, whether or not they’re succeeding. If they feel like they are succeeding, the bigger they want the gap to be, if they feel like they are failing, the smaller they want the gap to be.

If students redirect their focus from the scoreboard to the game of learning, an interesting thing happens. Focusing on learning creates a direct relationship between input and outcome: the more effort they invest, the greater the opportunity to learn. However, the calculus of competence is fundamentally different depending on how you define success. When the goal is to be smart, the formula is reduced to maximizing grades while minimizing effort. When the goal is to learn, the formula becomes about maximizing learning while optimizing effort. The more effective their effort, the more they can learn.

Not long ago a young man came to see me, distraught over his prospects of getting into a prestigious graduate school. He feared the possibility had slipped away due to his lackluster academic performance. As he described his situation, it became clear that his fixation on his grades was consuming enormous amounts of his attention. Through our discussion, he was able to redirect his attention from his focus on grades and the goal of graduate school to his love of material science -- a shift made easier by his resignation that graduate school was now out of reach due to his grades.

Over the next couple of weeks, he reported feeling less stressed and more excited about learning than he ever had in college. The results of his first round of midterms were so strong that graduate school was back on the table. With that realization, his attention shifted back to his grades and calculating what he would need to score on the remaining exams in order to be a competitive applicant. His performance tanked.

Focusing on the measurement of our performance reinforces what researcher Carol Dweck calls a fixed mind-set. If students believe that how they perform at one moment in time exposes the limits of their potential rather than serving merely as a snapshot of where they are in the process of growing their abilities, feelings of struggle and uncertainty become threatening rather than an opportunity to grow. That is not to say that grades aren’t an important measurement of their performance -- measurements that influence, fairly or unfairly, their access to opportunity. But the point is, as clearly demonstrated in the case of the aspiring material-science graduate student, when students focus their energy through their attention on learning while optimizing effort, grades are a natural result of this effective learning process. In contrast, when they focus their energy through their attention on grades, learning may or may not result.

Even more important is the fact that when they set their intention to be genuinely curious and authentically excited by the challenge of finding connections between their current knowledge and new opportunities to understand, they experience the true joy of learning and all of the spoils that attend it. I will never forget the excitement that I saw on the face of the young engineering student struggling with Russian literature when it dawned on her that she got to decide how she would show up for her learning. There is no shame in going all in, and just maybe the rewards will outweigh the risks.

Joseph Holtgreive is an assistant dean and director of the office of personal development at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering.

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Stress management can help more students succeed in college (essay)

Brain Matters

We in higher education now serve more students with more stress than ever before, yet we have done little to learn about the strategies to help them better manage it, argues Karen Costa.

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How to hold students' attention in the classroom (essay)

Brain Matters

Creating classroom experiences that grab and hold students' interest is not only good teaching, it's good science, writes Karen Costa.

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Pulse podcast features interview with Jason Gad of ExamSoft

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This month's edition of the “Pulse” podcast features an interview with Jason Gad, vice president of business development at ExamSoft.

Exercise improves cognition, so colleges should require physical education (essay)

Brain Matters

Exercise improves cognition, so it's time for colleges to require physical education throughout a student's undergraduate experience, writes Karen Costa.

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Let's put cameras in the classroom to protect professors from narcissistic students (essay)

It takes only one problematic student in an otherwise amiable class to cause a teacher to temporarily question his career choice. It’s especially troubling that the proportion of such problematic students appears to be growing.

Some studies have reported a rising “narcissism epidemic” among students, the result of which suggests that the “United States is poised to experience social problems as younger narcissists age and move into positions of power,” as Josh Clark of Seeker.com noted in February 2013. Many educators are unfamiliar with scholarly research on this mental disorder, yet they know, through personal experience, its various symptoms. What are those symptoms, and what can educators do to manage them when they flare up, particularly in the classroom?

Let’s start with the first question. Narcissistic students are distinguished by several traits that imply a greater likelihood of conflict with their instructors. They are prone to “arrogant, haughty [rude and abusive] behaviors or attitudes,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They are also easily offended; one might expect that this trait is especially manifest in classes where controversial social issues are regularly discussed. Further, narcissism is associated with a sense of academic entitlement, as well as uncivil behavior when, as noted in an article in Personality and Individual Differences, “entitled behaviors fail to achieve the desired outcome.” Finally, narcissism is linked to immoral -- and shameless -- conduct, including academic dishonesty. (Cheating seems to be on the rise, although I’ve seen little evidence that students are getting better at it. Would it kill them to at least change the font color before copying and pasting someone else’s work?)

Simply put, narcissistic students are more disruptive, academically entitled, willing to cheat in order to succeed and likely to fuss when they don’t.

As a result, classroom conflicts with narcissistic students may occur with greater frequency in higher education today. Here I’m particularly interested in the more serious cases that reach the attention of college administrators, wherein professors face at least two challenges when presenting their side of the story. First, if narcissistic students do have fewer qualms about committing acts of academic dishonesty, it isn’t a huge stretch of the imagination to suspect that they’re also more likely to deliberately misrepresent classroom confrontations and level false accusations against faculty members. Such bogus allegations are a real -- and evidently growing -- problem in today’s educational institutions. In Great Britain, at least, more than one in five teachers reported having been falsely accused by school and college students in a survey conducted last year by the U.K.-based Association of Teachers and Lecturers. On the other side of the Atlantic, it was reported that one in seven male teachers has been wrongly accused of “inappropriate contact with students,” leading to a dearth of “male role models” in Canadian classrooms, according to the Canadian Education Association.

Second, colleges and universities are increasingly run like businesses, whereby students are viewed as customers. Accordingly, Nate Kreuter argues, “the old main street American, folksy business mantra that ‘the customer is always right’ can’t be too far behind.” Although recent experience has taught me that I’ve been blessed with a very fair-minded dean, I know that professors at other institutions aren’t nearly as fortunate. The rise of this business model of education may be part of the reason why some of them are quitting. Perhaps they’ve lost confidence in their institutions’ ability to adjudicate conflicts between students and faculty members impartially.

So, what’s my solution? Installing video cameras in classrooms is by no means a novel idea. It has been proposed for multiple reasons, from helping “teachers ground their self-reflection in empirical evidence” to protecting students from bullies and abusive professors.

But class cams aren’t usually predicated on the growing need to protect educators. While leaving it to each college and university to address questions of implementation (e.g., where, and for how long, will video footage be stored? Who may access it and under what conditions?), I argue that class cams will produce the incontrovertible evidence that faculty members need to overcome false allegations from students.

Of course, faculty members and school teachers are capable of misconduct, too (and I mean real, coming-to-class-drunk-and-walking-into-walls misconduct, not the distasteful-yet-harmless-dropping-the-f-bomb-in-class misconduct that, these days, can help get a professor fired). Therefore, class cams could also benefit students by proving or deterring inappropriate classroom behavior on their instructors’ part.

Class cams are an admittedly costly solution. But for colleges and universities that can afford them, they may be a necessary safeguard for faculty members until we successfully resolve the underlying causes of our narcissism epidemic.

Amir Azarvan is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College.

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As educators, we should understand more about how the brain works (essay)

Brain Matters

As educators, we need to bring a far greater understanding of how the brain works to our conversations on teaching, learning and student success in higher education, argues Karen Costa.

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