If all you have is a stick, every student looks like an ass*

If you read something Wednesday morning and it’s still bugging you on Friday afternoon, don’t keep having a conversation in your head, write about it.

A few days ago, yet another hand-wringing, oh-dear-what-shall-we-do-about-it post about students and their phones came through my Twitter feed. Over at Faculty Focus, Maryellen Weimer offers her advice about “The Age of Distraction: Getting Students to Put Away Their Phones and Focus on Learning.” She summarizes some research by Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff and Scott Titsworth which joins Duncan, Hoekstra & Wilcox (2012) in telling us students are distracted by their phones and learn less. I’m not questioning whatsoever the validity of these works. Doug Duncan is a friend and colleague but all he admits that their paper is saying is there’s a correlation between cell phone use and student learning.

It’s when people attribute causation that my blood starts to boil. “My students aren’t learning because they’re on their phones. What can we do about it? How can we get them to pay attention? It’s for their own good…”  Yadda yadda yadda.

Here’s what I think:

Sticks Carrots
Don’t ban phones and laptops from class. Do make what happens in class more interesting and worthwhile than what they can find on their phones. Or find activities where they can use their mad searching, tweeting, texting, drawing, instagramming skills.
Don’t show them a graph of student marks vs phone use (Learning to interpret graphs is, itself, a learning objective of many instructors. It’s a skill that takes a lot of instruction and practice. Slapping a graph on the screen and saying, “See!” even if you try to explain it, is unlikely to have much impact.) or do some other phone-y demonstration to prove to them they’re not learning. Do help them learn by getting them engaged with your content. Like a lifeguard that says, “Walk on the pool deck, please!” instead of “No running!”, show them what they can do, don’t tell them what they can’t.
Don’t start from the assumption that students will be on their phones and the instructor needs to  find ways to get students to “put away their phones.” Do with start with the goal of engaging students so that they have neither the time nor the desire to pull out their phones.

Is it naive to think it’s possible to keep them engaged? No. Instructors using peer instruction with clickers can keep their students’ attention. And, yes, these instructors still lecture: for a maximum of 10 minutes after they’ve used some clicker questions to ensure the students are “prepared to learn,” as Dan Schwartz would say.

Is it easy to keep students engaged for 50 minutes? No, but no one ever said teaching is easy.

* the title is my portmanteau of the expression, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” and the “carrot and stick” approach to driving your ass, er, mule.

3 Replies to “If all you have is a stick, every student looks like an ass*”

  1. Totally agree with everything here. I have heard profs, though, who say that they’re banning “electronic devices” because they get complaints from other students who say having a video playing in the row in front of them is distracting when they’re trying to learn. Do you think that’s a real concern or are some profs using it as an excuse to pull out the sticks?

    1. There’s certainly a cone-shaped “zone of distraction” radiating backwards from someone watching YouTube on their laptop in class. Maybe you can appeal to people that way: “it doesn’t bother me (the instructor) but you’re distracting your fellow students so please consider not doing it.” In my opinion, that’s still reactive. I’d rather find a proactive solution that either convinced the student not to open a laptop in the first place (say, they’re so distracted by learning) or everyone has a laptop open because they’re in the middle of an in-class activity that requires them to do research or experiment with a simulation or contribute to a shared Google doc or…

      1. So it’s the instructor’s fault for the bad manners of students? Is the obnoxious behavior of a drunk at a football match the fault of the teams for failing to provide a sufficiently compelling distraction? Is the diner at a fine restaurant who talks loudly on their mobile phone just a victim of the kitchen’s failure to deliver a sufficiently distracting table?

        Much of this discussion here and elsewhere in the vein of the poster has the odor of special pleading for an activity they favor, viz., *I* use my mobile phone in socially questionable contexts such as faculty meetings, restaurants, the opera, so I’d better defend students who do the same in class.

        Bad manners are corrected by instruction, not by avoidance.

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