1. Thou shalt have no other object of attention in the classroom. No devices — phones, gadgets, computers, guns — or distractions; I am a jealous and wrathful instructor.
2. Thou shalt honor thy fellow students. They are also struggling, growing, with opinions always changing, and with perspectives always in transition. Be kind and patient with them, and yourself. In discussion, be sensitive to the feelings of others, slow to be offended and quick to not offend, though do not censor yourself. Try to use “I” statements, speaking from your own experience, and speak your mind knowing that all controversial arguments can be made with tact, humility, and sensitivity to others.
3. Thou shalt assume the best intentions of the instructor and fellow students. Take what is said in the classroom with interpretative charity — assuming all speak in earnest and in good faith — though treat what is said with a critical eye. We are all in this together and we all want to “do the right thing” by each other.
4. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s work. But feel free to consult with them on notes and materials, share feedback, look at each other’s drafts, and so forth. Attend to the customs and rules of proper citation. Put things in your own words, and if you use the words of others, honor them by citing them.
5. Honor the work of the authors. You do so by reading the assigned materials and appreciating their arguments, but also by raising objections, comments, and questions. On class days you shall participate; outside of class, you shall labor by reading.
6. Thou shalt ask questions for the benefit of the good and welfare of the class. Ask away about issues or substance of the class — no question is dumb. On procedural matters, consult the syllabus first and the professor when appropriate.
7. When all else fails, follow directions. Consult the syllabus, the assignment specifics, and other missives sent by the instructor. See Commandment #6.
8. If thou speaks too much, step back. If thou speaks too little, step up! Be mindful of your own contribution balanced with the needs of your fellow students. Don’t dominate the conversation, but don’t hesitate to contribute. Assume that if you have a question on the material, others are thinking of it as well, so do them a favor and ask!
9. Thou shalt figure out a goodly system to take notes. The classroom is not a passive arena — all discussions, videos, lectures, and chalkboard notes are important grist for the mill of our common learning. If you want, record the lectures and take notes. After each session, ask yourself what you learned.
10. Thou shalt be an active agent in your own learning. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own learning. Be resourceful — if the classroom experience is difficult or not useful, or if the experience is not working for you, consult with the instructor who wants to help (see Commandment #3). Approach the instructor with your concerns, issues, and questions sooner than later.
What commandment would you add?
Elliot Ratzman is assistant professor of religion at Temple University.
Students have lost their honor! The recent revelation that 64 Dartmouth College students were charged with cheating this past fall was followed by the predictable comments on a larger social malaise. We learned that some students allegedly ditched classes, providing their handheld electronic “clickers” to other students who attended and then answered questions on their behalf. There were also students who reportedly passed clickers to their classroom neighbors to answer questions for them.
To make matters worse, this happened in an ethics class. The students have been decried for their self-centeredness and lack of scruples; some wonder how they could be allowed to remain at Dartmouth. What better evidence of the decline of honor in a society where, in the instructor’s words, “it’s not surprising that students would want to trade the nebulous notion of honor with what they perceive as some sort of advantage in professional advancement.”
The instructor may be right, but the decline in honor in this instance cannot be separated from another problem: How we define student learning, and how learning is relevant to the advancement of democracy. Were those cheating Dartmouth students wanting in honor? Yes, and they should be held accountable for their poor judgment. But their lack of honesty lies at the surface of a larger issue: How do they find value in the subject matter presented to them?
If the subject matter of ethics or any field of study is presented as a body of fixed truths that students get or don’t get (clicking correctly or incorrectly), then how does it have meaning in their experience? The answer, of course, is obvious – subject matter matters as students’ ability to prove that they know what those in authority know, avoiding the painful consequences of failing to do so. When subject matter is ready-made information to just “learn,” then the fields they study have been depleted of their creative oxygen.
The issue of “honor” is then reduced to whether or not students honestly reproduce what has been transmitted to them. The American philosopher John Dewey saw that there is no a better prescription for developing a misguided sense of the world as closed, with the meanings of things already settled, as opposed to in flux, open to interpretation, change.
What should society desire from higher education in the long term? The value of higher education is under intense scrutiny today. Should colleges be rated against set criteria, will this or that type of degree yield employment; how does the so-called value proposition drive the publics’ view of higher education? The question I am posing here concerns how higher education can contribute to democratic citizenship.
We need higher education to excite students with the prospect of their participation in the advancement of knowledge and solutions to social problems. This is how education can serve the development of an imagination, as well as of the capacity for and motivation toward making sense of and improving the world with others. Do we want our students to have honor? Let’s help them to see and experience their own potential to make a real difference through their learning, and not just by getting a grade or earning a degree.
Learning can mean cramming in information as “subject matter” and being done with it. It can also mean embracing the power of academic fields to open mysteries, to anchor present and future living in intellectual and creative pursuit and discovery. In order for education to reach its transformative potential, what the educational theorist Maxine Greene called the “lure of incompleteness” should frame our conception of subject matter and the activities it incites. Education can be an opening for the building of sensitivity to an environment in flux, where meanings are not settled, fixed, and where anticipation of and solutions to problems are possible.
James Ostrow is vice president for academic affairs at Lasell College.
“Turn the air conditioning off.” It was a hot July day in New York City. “Trust us,” one of my students beamed, “we need absolute quiet.”
Quanisha rose, shyly adjusted her T-shirt and started to sing. Her voice was raw and stunning. When she finished, my 16-year-old students looked at me and said, “Now we’re ready for Rousseau.” That was the day I learned that great classes contain extraordinary moments of intimacy.
In a policy climate enamored with technology and distance learning, the Freedom and Citizenship Program at Columbia University stands out for its commitment to books and teachers. For the past six years, low-income, mostly minority, high school students have arrived on Columbia University’s campus to take a three-week intensive seminar based on the Columbia College Core Curriculum. These students return to campus throughout the academic year to research a contemporary political issue, such as immigration and prison reform. As Casey Blake, the American studies professor who directs the program explains: “The goal is not only to introduce the students to the centuries-old debate about the meaning of freedom and citizenship but also to prepare them for lives as active, engaged citizens.”
Two convictions animate the seminar. One is that 16-year-olds from low-income communities can handle and benefit from a college-level Great Books course. The second is that nothing can replace personal attention. Two Columbia professors, two graduate students, and six undergraduates serve as reading, writing, public speaking, and college-prep mentors for 30 rising high school seniors who live on campus while enrolled in the seminar.
When I first contemplated teaching the summer seminar, I did not grasp its purpose. I was more or less terrified. I had just completed my Ph.D. in American history and the seminar had little to do with the subject I had studied: aging in America. The syllabus was overwhelming: one day Plato, the next Aristotle, and then on to Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, Dewey, and King. For weeks I tried to fill the gaping holes in my education, panicked that my students would look to me for answers I couldn’t give.
The first day of class I showed up an hour early, paced, and imagined the personal horrors of an oral exam on Plato. The students arrived on time. They ambled into the seminar room, some laughing, others stoic, all clutching their copies of The Trial and Death of Socrates. As they sat down, I knew that they desperately, achingly, wanted to be in this room. I recalled what the director of the Columbia Core, Roosevelt Montàs, said to me when I agreed to take on the course, “be quiet and be curious.”
When Montàs speaks about the Freedom and Citizenship Program and the Columbia Core, he often reflects on the purpose of a humanities education. “In most disciplines,” he explains, “the subject to be learned is at the center…. In this field of study, the student, the individual as a living growing entity, is at the center.” My job was not just to transmit facts and skills. My job was to create the conditions for these students to relate to, and grow from, these extremely challenging texts. Silence would be key.
I don’t come by silence naturally, but I spent years understanding its value. While working on my dissertation, I learned that sitting with an older person in need is a powerful lesson in humility and presence.
On that first day of class I sat quietly for a minute or two and waited for them to be ready. Then I took a page from Bertrand Russell and opened our time together with a question that would remind us all of the powerful, childlike core of all forms of learning: What fills you with a sense of wonder?
Their answers were tender and earnest; they ranged from observations about primary colors to small acts of kindness. And then came Quanisha. “I’ll tell you,” she offered, “but don’t laugh. I wonder what this guy Socrates is saying. I just don’t understand him. I have been up all night. I read this three times and I don’t know what he is saying and I wonder about it.” So our seminar really began, with that familiar little phrase, “Let’s turn to the text.”
It was Socrates’ description of wisdom that caused the most collective confusion. “I don’t get it,” Lanique piped, “he is wise and not wise, but wiser than other people and still ignorant. That doesn’t seem very wise to me.”
I smiled knowing that my students cared and were close to understanding something of great value. “Let’s look closely at what he says when he is off investigating those who might have a claim to wisdom,” I said. “But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom….”
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
Gabriel spoke up, “I think he is saying that you’re not wise if you think you know something that you don’t know. It’s like a person who knows a lot about one subject and just because of that he thinks he knows about everything.”
“So, how would you describe this definition of wisdom?” I followed.
“Maybe wisdom is just knowing what you don’t know,” he replied. Laura and Genesys smiled. Now we could all remain in the classroom and claim to be wise, just by admitting what we did not know. Fabulous!
“But wait,” questioned a soft voice to my left. “Is that enough?” Fatoumata leaned into our seminar table. “How can it be enough to just say you don’t know? Don’t we have to do more? Don’t we have to figure out how we could learn about a subject?”
The class found its rhythm and my students, drawing deeply from their reading of the Apology, debated the contours of wisdom, knowledge, and learning for the greater part of an hour. The morning ended with our own working definition of wisdom that we would try to apply to our future seminars, “Wisdom is being upfront about what you don’t know and then carefully, ploddingly, figuring out how you would learn more about it.”
Thus began an intellectual journey short on ego and long on responsibility. As one of my own professors at Columbia, Andrew Delbanco, reminds us, the founders of America’s colleges thought learning could be blocked by pride. This is what Socrates gave our classroom: he allowed us to let go of pride while holding onto obligation.
From big questions, we launched into big problems. With Hobbes, we discussed the human proclivity toward violence, and with Locke and Frederick Douglass, the agony of slavery as well as the challenges of securing freedom. My students began to articulate a definition of freedom as the essential right to develop oneself and to a find purpose. The day Quanisha sang, our philosophical conversation about freedom grew more intimate.
It began with a question posed by Mysterie. “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” she read. “Why does Rousseau think we are born free? Is anyone really born free?” My students pounced; everyone had a contribution. That day their comments didn’t just come from the text, it came from them. They talked about the challenges of living with a parent suffering from drug addiction, the lasting effects of physical insecurity, and the oppressive emotional state that can be induced by racism. That summer we didn’t just discuss freedom as an abstract concept; we discussed what that word meant to us as individuals, as members of families, of learning communities, and as citizens of our shared country. Our seminar became a model for education that was not only about absorbing facts, but one that was beholden to our world as it is and as it should be.
“If for Du Bois,” began Afroza in our last week together, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line, then the problem of the 21st is empathy fatigue. Human suffering is just so great; how do we know what to do first?” Kevin nodded but offered his own response, “I think the problem is really about access.”
Reyna agreed, “Some people can access the best of what we have, technology and education, and others can’t. It is completely unequal.”
“Isn’t the problem really then poverty?” posed Maisa. Kisairis and Joangie nodded. The nodding continued but the shoulders around the seminar table started to slump. Heebong voiced our collective sense of defeat, “but what can we do about those issues. They are so … big.”
We could have ended there. If I were alone, I probably would have. But we were in a classroom and we had started with Socrates.
“We need to get wise,” said Fatoumata, at first quietly and then emboldened by a chorus of her peers, “We need to get wise.”
These extraordinary students then started designing a plan of study, a course of intellectual action to learn how to tackle these problems. Their plan of action required knowledge produced by biologists, physicians, psychologists, philosophers, politicians, and sociologists, to name only a few. These students understood that the great human problems of their generation were at once structural and personal. To solve them, they would need a STEM education and a liberal education, the sciences and the humanities.
As the distance closed between 4th-century Athens and 21st-century New York City, between ideas and our actual lives, and between my students and myself, our collective education took on its full purpose-driven force. My students came to this course because it was a means to an end – college. They left the seminar almost embarrassed by the shortsightedness of that goal. As one student put it, “Now I want to go to college not just to get there but to really learn something, so that I can give back; it’s not just about me and my success but about what I can do with it.”
We are in a period of exceptional innovation in the way education takes place. We must test and develop ever-new forms of virtual courses to convey skills while containing costs. But while doing so, we cannot forget the value of an education that is personal and beholden. This July, over 40 individuals, both teachers and students, learned about freedom, citizenship, and the purpose of knowledge by reading significant books and talking to one another around a battered old wooden table. The results were wondrous.
Tamara Mann is the John Strassburger Fellow in American Studies at Columbia University, where she teaches in the Freedom and Citizenship Program. The program is a partnership between the Center for American Studies and the Double Discovery Center at Columbia University and has received financial support from the Teagle Foundation and the Jack Miller Center.
“As a nation, we have to make college more accessible and affordable and ensure that all students graduate with a quality education of real value.”
--Secretary Arne Duncan, December 19, 2014
With the release of the Obama administration’s much-anticipated framework for rating the nation’s colleges and universities, commentators already are weighing in on the yawning gulf between the stated intention of ensuring “a quality education of real value” and the severe limitations of the metrics being considered. While the proposed college ratings system can and should expose some truly bad institutions that don’t deserve to receive federal support, the ratings framework by design presents a severely limited picture of how individual colleges and universities serve students and the nation. Regardless of whether one judges the proposed ratings data to be clarifying or misleading, the fact remains that the most important outcome of higher education — the impact a college or university has on student learning outcomes — is completely missing from the federal ratings framework.
American higher education urgently needs a college learning assessment system, but not one that equates student learning with disciplinary knowledge alone. Rather, it needs a way to account for the higher-order capacities and skills that are the hallmarks of a liberal education. The ordinary citizen will very reasonably assume that the college ratings system the federal government is now poised to promote does provide the needed evidence on college learning and quality. (Secretary Duncan himself seems to assume this, as the quote above makes clear.)
But the ordinary citizen will be wrong in this assumption. The proposed college ratings system does not, in fact, provide any evidence at all about the quality of student learning. By design, the federal ratings system is focused carefully and exclusively on data related to who enrolls in college, institutional affordability, and employment at a living wage after graduation.
What then should we do about the quality of learning challenge? What America absolutely does not need the federal government to do — and what the administration has so far very prudently and thoughtfully refrained from doing — is to create a national, federally devised and controlled system that would specify what the learning goals of college should be and then assess whether students are achieving them. Nonetheless, the public does need to know how well colleges, universities, and community colleges are doing in providing the kinds of learning that contribute directly to students’ success beyond graduation.
Under established law, private college and university boards of trustees and public college and university state system governing arrangements rightly determine the missions of individual higher education institutions, and through longstanding shared governance arrangements faculty and institutional leaders set the goals for student learning on individual campuses with the needs and goals of students and of the nation very much in mind. Yet there is wide recognition — especially among America’s employers, but also within higher education itself — that far too few students graduate from college well-enough prepared for success in work, civic participation and democratic citizenship, and life in the 21st century.
American higher education must do much better in both assessing and improving learning.
And, on this front, there is genuinely good news to report. This year, far away from the ratings furor, educators themselves are taking the lead in developing the kind of learning assessments the public deserves from higher education. The VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) represents an important step forward — one that has at its core not only the assessment of student learning, but also the creation of a platform for providing institutions with direct feedback to support continuous quality improvement in teaching and learning. Developed in 2007 through a national collaboration of faculty, institutional, and state-system leaders along with content knowledge and student learning experts, the VALUE approach to assessment has since gained acceptance with remarkable speed.
This year, building on this foundation, AAC&U, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), nine state systems, and 85 public and private institutions are engaged in a major proof of concept study designed to demonstrate the different direction the VALUE approach represents both for assessing learning outcomes and for providing useful feedback to educators about strengths and needed improvements in student performance. The states working in concert with AAC&U and SHEEO are Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Utah. Private liberal arts institutions in additional states also are contributing to the study.
Under the VALUE approach, rubrics — common across participating institutions — are used rather than standardized tests, and scores are based on faculty judgments about actual student work. Specifically, graded student work products that show what a student knows and can do — an essay, a piece of creative writing, a lab report, an oral presentation — are evaluated and scored by faculty members (not those who originally assigned and graded the work product) against a rubric that describes multiple dimensions of what it means to do critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, integrative reasoning, or any of the other forms of higher-order learning for which the VALUE rubrics describe achievement at different levels. The exciting promise of this work is that higher education itself is advancing an approach to assessment that is meaningful and accessible to faculty, students, and higher education stakeholders alike.
The VALUE rubrics were initially created by faculty members, and they reflect educators’ shared judgments about both the substance and the quality of student learning outcomes. Teams of faculty and academic professionals from more than 100 campuses across the country contributed to the development of these VALUE assessment rubrics for each of 16 liberal learning outcomes: inquiry and analysis, critical thinking, writing, integrative learning, oral communication, information literacy, problem solving, teamwork, intercultural knowledge, civic engagement, creative thinking, quantitative literacy, lifelong learning, ethical reasoning, global learning, and reading. These outcomes are important to the education of all college students, whether in two-year or four-year institutions, liberal arts or pre-professional programs, online or in-person courses, and regardless of institutional mission.
But the VALUE approach offers more than just a way to assess student learning. It is itself potentially a “high-impact practice” that will lead to greater student persistence and completion and to a reduction in the achievement gap between white students and disadvantaged students of color. The VALUE rubrics show students what excellence with regard to a particular learning goal looks like, and they let students see where they are on the path toward excellent performance. When faculty talk with students about their work and how it was scored, they are providing students with precisely the kind of “frequent, timely and constructive feedback,” “interactions with faculty ... about substantive matters,” and “structured opportunities to reflect on and integrate learning” that is characteristic of high-impact practices as George Kuh has defined them in his influential reports. In addition, AAC&U has learned already from campuses piloting the use of VALUE rubrics that, after initial experiences with the rubrics, faculty come together to develop assignments that directly address higher-order liberal learning skills — especially evidence-based reasoning — rather than lower-order skills such as description, summary, and paraphrase. None of this happens when a student is sent his or her score on a standardized test. This feature of VALUE, above and beyond its great utility as an assessment system, is responsible for its already very wide and growing support in colleges, universities, and state systems nationally.
What the federal government could and should do, even as it develops and tests its new ratings system, is to remind the nation, over and over, that student acquisition of the knowledge and skills college graduates need is the primary and most critical public purpose for which colleges and universities are chartered. Hence, the federal government should say that assessing what college students know and can do must be a very high institutional — and, for public institutions, institutional and state-system — priority.
While the federal government should not seek to take responsibility for this assessment, it can and should remind those properly responsible that the quality and assessment of student learning — not just access, completion, and non-learning outcomes — must become a top priority.
At the very least, the US Department of Education should publicly be calling attention to and rooting for the success of state- and institution-driven efforts like VALUE that have national potential. But it also could, through existing federal grant programs such as the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) or through Department of Education contracts, create incentives for institutions and state systems to adopt new assessment approaches by offsetting temporary institutional “ramping-up” costs or providing financial support for the necessary infrastructure to allow initiatives like VALUE to become functional nationwide.
This is how public-private partnerships should work: investing in promising ideas and facilitating their testing as they develop. Both at the federal and state levels, public policy can be an enabler for the radically better approach to assessment that VALUE represents.
So even as we debate what’s right or wrong with the ratings, let’s remember that advancing accountability in higher education ultimately needs to include what students are learning.
Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Daniel F. Sullivan is president emeritus of St. Lawrence University and chair of the AAC&U LEAP Presidents’ Trust.
It should not be controversial to believe that growing up involves becoming stronger, becoming better able to withstand whatever slings and arrows life throws at us and to pursue our goals even against difficult challenges. Surely the college years can and should play an important role in that growing-up process.
And yet, too often colleges treat their students like hatchlings not yet ready to leave the nest, as opposed to preparing and encouraging them to fly.
There are a variety of policies and practices that give students what most of them seem to want, but not necessarily what they most need. Speech codes and trigger warnings are two over-protecting initiatives that have received considerable attention in the higher education press and beyond.
So much has been written about the problems with speech codes that there is no need to belabor the subject at this point. Aside from the legal problems they can present with regard to free speech issues, especially in public higher education, they presume that students cannot withstand, much less respond with vigor to, speech they find objectionable. They also serve as an example of how formal codes and policies are no substitute for shared norms and values concerning how people should behave with one another.
The trigger warning movement, which has offered another field day for those on the lookout for opportunities to ridicule colleges and universities, advocates alerting students in advance to anything potentially upsetting in materials required for a course. Above and beyond being forewarned, some students would presumably be allowed to avoid an encounter with such materials altogether. Aside from this being an insult to the intelligence and good sense of students and faculty members alike, it also threatens to spoil the thrill of discovery. After all, would all first-time readers of Anna Karenina really want to be told ahead of time that [SPOILER ALERT!!] Anna commits suicide by throwing herself under a train at the end of the novel.
And then there is the rash of speaker cancellations due to student unwillingness to be exposed to “objectionable” views from a guest to the campus. Part of this particular problem might be addressed by recognizing that an essentially ritual occasion like a graduation ceremony may not be the best venue for a controversial, as opposed to celebratory, message. That issue taken care of, it should be easier to push back on other occasions against students who are being overly selective in their defense of free speech.
Student reactions to displays of racial insensitivity and prejudice can be considered in this context. The persistence of racism in our society and on our campuses is most certainly disturbing and unacceptable. At the same time, while a couple of students hanging a Confederate flag in their dormitory window or some students sending anonymous offensive tweets should not go without some critical response, incidents like these do not seem sufficient to put an entire campus into a state of turmoil. Surely, that is attributing too much power to the offenders and displaying too much vulnerability on the part of those they would offend.
It is important to consider which institutional customs may be at odds with the task at hand. There is, for example, the practice that has become common of designating certain areas of campus as “safe spaces” for certain kinds of activities and identities. Such language goes above and beyond the informal establishing of preferred comfortable gathering spaces. The implication is that certain students, depending on their identities or preferred activities, are “unsafe” on other areas of campus. This magnifies the sense of personal danger out of all proportion and interferes with students’ appreciation of what it means to be in real peril. It is an obstacle to the development of authentic courage.
The exponential growth of professional student services staff – which, to be sure, has had its positive side – has played into a tendency toward what we might see as self-infantilization on the part of students, who are now in the habit of seeking formal institutional support and approval for the kinds of activities they used to be capable of managing themselves. The most unusual example of this in my own years as a college president occurred when a student came to me seeking institutional recognition for the group she represented, which, as it happened, was composed of students favoring safe, consensual S&M sex. I inquired as to why it was not sufficient that her group was not being interfered with by the administration. That was apparently not good enough for her: she wanted a blessing from those in authority. I declined to provide the blessing, preferring to encourage her to see that she could manage without it.
This support-seeking seems to be of a piece with the prolonged umbilical role that many students maintain with their parents into their college years, calling them several times a day on their cellphones. The parents, for their part, remain overly involved with their children – at least those parents whose life circumstances allow them to do so. And so we have socialization in reverse: rather than helping their offspring achieve adulthood, those who should be the grown-ups are living the lives of their children along with them. Parental over-involvement can make the institutional exercise of authority all the more challenging when it rises to (or descends into) litigiousness.
So -- whose responsibility is it to address this and other aspects of campus culture that stand in the way of students developing the kind of resilience and strength that they need in life? First and foremost, this job, like so many other tough and often thankless tasks, falls to college and university presidents. A job far easier to assign than to fulfill.
Those of us who have moved on to less complicated lives must at least have the good grace to feel their pain. The task, however, must be taken up if the undergraduate experience is to be what it should be. Where presidents lead, staff will follow – and so even will the faculty, if a persuasively argued connection is made to the essential purposes of the institution.
Here, then, are the questions that must frame a president’s response when one of those increasingly common eruptions breaks out on campus: How high does this measure on the Richter scale of crises? How can I respond in a way that plays to my students’ strengths as opposed to their weaknesses? How can this serve as an occasion to increase their wisdom and self-confidence? How will I help them to grow up?
To invoke the timelessly wise words of the Rolling Stones: If students can’t always get what they want, if we try sometimes, we might just find they get what they need.
Judith Shapiro is a former faculty member and provost at Bryn Mawr College and former president of Barnard College.
Attention is how the mind prioritizes. The brain’s attention circuits stay busy throughout our waking hours, directing on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis where our limited cognitive resources are going to go, monitoring the information that floods into our senses, and shaping conscious experience. Attention is one of the most mysterious and compelling topics in cognitive science. Years of research on the subject are now paying off handsomely in the form of recent advances in our understanding of how these mechanisms work, on both theoretical and physiological levels. And the more we learn, the more we realize that these findings aren’t just important for theory-building -- they offer myriad practical applications that can help people function more effectively across all aspects of life. Teaching and learning is one area where attention research is especially useful for helping us get better at what we do.
In my book Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, I foreground attention as the starting point for everything designers of college-level online learning experiences should know about human cognition. Without attention, much of what we want students to accomplish -- taking in new information, making new connections, acquiring and practicing new skills -- simply doesn’t happen. And thus, gaining students’ focus is a necessary first step in any well-designed learning activity, whether online or face-to-face.
But how does this principle play out in a contemporary learning environment littered with tempting distractions -- the smartphones that accompany students to class, social networks that let us reach out to friends around the clock, the sites for games, media, and shopping that beckon every time we open our browsers? It’s especially concerning given how overly optimistic people tend to be about their ability to juggle different tasks. As psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simon eloquently explain in The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, human beings are notoriously bad at knowing what we can handle, attention-wise. Essentially, we lie to ourselves about what we notice and what we know, believing that we take in much more that we actually do.
For our students, this adds up to a serious drain on learning. And as learning environments become more complex, it is a drain they can’t afford. Consider, for example, some forms of blended learning in which students master foundational knowledge outside of class, usually through online work, then spend class time on focused application and interaction with instructors and classmates. A tightly scheduled and synchronized system like this can work beautifully, but doesn’t allow much margin of error for wasted time and scattered focus.
So what can we do about this situation? One strategy is to educate students about the limits of attention and just how much they miss when they choose to multitask. This, however, is easier said than done. Incorporating a learning module on attention is straightforward enough, but what would it take for such a module to be effective? First, it would need to be brief and to the point, reinforcing just a few crucial take-home messages without a great deal of history, theory or other background more appropriate to a full-length course in cognition. At the same time, quality control would be a major concern, especially for the module to be usable by an instructor without academic training in cognitive psychology. Just Googling for materials on attention brings up at least as much pseudoscience as reputable work, and without this solid scientific grounding, a module on the dangers of multitasking could easily devolve into a “Reefer Madness”-style experience, more laughable than persuasive.
Keeping these caveats firmly in mind, I’ve worked with my instructional designer colleague John Doherty to create a free-standing, one-shot online learning module called Attention Matters that instructors can drop into existing courses as an extra credit or required assignment. Besides being scrupulous about the science, John and I prioritized interactivity and use of the multimedia capabilities of online learning -- enabling us to show students, not just tell them, what distraction can do to performance in different contexts. Too many online learning activities consist essentially of glorified PowerPoint slides, so although there is a certain amount of text within our module, we put most of the emphasis on media, demonstrations, self-assessment and discussion.
As an example, we used a demonstration we called the “Selective Reading Challenge” to show students how attention mechanisms constantly filter incoming information, and also, how little we remember of information we don’t attend to. The demonstration consists of a page of text, alternating lines of bold and regular typefaces. Students are instructed to pay attention to only the bold lines, ignoring everything else, then proceed immediately to the next page. In the “to be ignored” text, we hide a few stimuli that may break through to awareness -- a couple of common names (Michael, Emily, Stephen, Christina), that if they belong to you, will probably pop out, as well as a few attention-grabbing emotional terms (911, murder). After completing the “selective reading,” students are invited to go back review the entire page of text -- bold and regular -- to see what they missed, and what they (likely) don’t remember at all even though it was well within the field of vision.
Other demonstrations illustrate the dramatic slowdown in processing that takes place when we multitask among competing activities. We present an online version of the classic “Stroop effect” to illustrate how distraction -- even from other mental processes going on at the same time -- can make a simple activity slow and inaccurate. The task involves naming the colors of a sequence of multicolored words -- not a difficult task, except when the words are themselves color names. red, green, blue, and so on – that contradict the colors they are printed in. Lastly, we pulled in several video clips from around the Web to drive home the multitasking point. One shows a prank “driving test” in which unsuspecting students were told to text while navigating a practice course, with predictably disastrous results. Another classic clip called “The Amazing Color Changing Card Trick,” created by psychologist Richard Wiseman, dramatically illustrates how attending to one part of a scene causes us to miss major developments going on in practically the same location.
These videos, activities and demonstrations form the anchor for brief, impactful student learning activities throughout the module. Students respond to discussion prompts asking them whether the demonstrations worked on them as predicted, and what they may mean for everyday attention. They also complete self-quizzes with feedback that target the different learning outcomes for each part of the module. At the end, they revisit what they have learned in a brief self-reflection and survey on attitudes and beliefs about attention and its importance for learning.
Attention Matters is an exciting project, offering us the opportunity to apply cognitive science in a novel and – we hope – useful way. The project also has a research component, through which we will be gathering data on student attitudes and beliefs about their own attentional capabilities, as well as on the frequency of different multitasking behaviors in their own lives.
There’s another important side to Attention Matters, and that has to do with the collaboration between an instructional design expert and a Subject Matter Expert, or SME. Much has been written about the virtues of instructional design experts’ pairing up with SMEs, and yet, such collaborations remain fairly rare within higher education. We hope that this project demonstrates the real benefits to be gained – perhaps motivating others to take the plunge.
It’s still too early to know what the long-term impacts of Attention Matters are going to be, or to predict exactly what we might discover about student attitudes and behaviors around multitasking. But I do foresee that as seismic change continues to occur in higher education, we will see more educators entering similar new territory – collaboratively creating focused, technologically delivered learning modules that live outside of traditional courses and use learning theory and cognitive science as the basis for design. And in our case, we may be able to add to our arsenal of strategies for getting students to become better stewards of their own attention.