Unplugging students … We know we need to do it, but is it even possible?

It’s funny, Hal and I have been working together now for a few years, and more times than I can count, as a thought is beating around in my head, Hal will say … “I’ve been thinking … ”

His post of this past week, is yet another example. You see, I just finished the semester, and while correcting exams, I find my mind wandering over … what could I have done better? This semester, the number of times I found students texting in class or checking out their cell phone did increase, in all of my classes, and given that next fall, I will be teaching a develop class to four times as many students, I wonder … it is even possible to unplug them during class?

Yet the problem of students using technology to pull them away from class is a real one. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, http://chronicle.com/article/From-Professor-Back-to/127350/, highlights this problem from a different perspective … that of the student who is not texting or facebooking, or searching the internet, but distracted by the actions of those around him. Thus, I have more motivation going into this summer to come up with policies or practices that could minimize these distraction.

I have already taking a multifaceted approach to this problem.

  1.  I am on facebook. It’s an account just for students (and the few friends of mine who like seeing what college students are up to these days.) I can see what students are thinking, feeling, and doing … yes, much to my surprise students will actually complain to every body on Facebook about struggling in classes I’m teaching. Why do I do this? Students are more likely to listen to my concerns about facebook when they know I’m on it, myself. This isn’t a black and white issue … good vs. evil … it’s a moderation issue, and by me being on facebook, I can model that moderation.
  • However, for those of you thinking of trying this yourself, particularly the sages among you … even I was shocked at the personal details and language students use on this forum, to the point that I won’t let my mother “friend” me as I think the comments and language would send this otherwise open minded senior into cardiac arrest.
  • I actually post comments on facebook once or twice a week. They are short, sweet, and often involve links to articles that are summarizing research. Much of this research I will bring into the classroom for discussion and example purposes in statistics.  A couple examples include an MSNBC article on how children multitasking with cell phones. social networking sites, etc. could increase ADD http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42557051/ns/nightly_news/ . This link gets students to a free tutorial on math and statistics http://www.khanacademy.org/about, or from an article from the Chronicle, students text … a lot during class … and also feel guilty about it, but not enough to stop texting: http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/guilt-is-not-enough-to-stop-students-from-texting-in-class/29962. Of course, there are others … like the study from Psychological Science that demonstrates that students ability to learn decreases with their facebook account simply being open and “running’ in the back ground.

2. Just like the articles I post on facebook, I try to talk to students about these concepts and how to maximize their academic success. But I have to admit, I don’t know if it matters.

3. What seems to have mattered is a practice I started this semester. While I am teaching, out of the blue … I randomly announce in class to “put that away” or “don’t text in my class.”  Typically, one or two students will sheepishly put away their cell phones. Sure, I didn’t see them in the first place, but when I interviewed one of my classes as to how often they felt I was just saying this, they stated they thought I had always seen someone texting. They also stated that it decreased the likelihood of them pulling out their cell phones during class.

4. Of course, there are good ways to use technology. Drew Ziner, one of our “sages” posted about his use of the website “Broken Pencils” http://asrcsolutions.blogspot.com/2011/01/starting-off-semester-with-right.html Drew has students post questions, and he answers them. He blog on how he used “Broken Pencils” can be found here https://statisticalsage.wordpress.com/2011/02/17/integrating-a-…broken-pencils/

But I must admit. Thinking back to the days when I threw a college party or two, where we would have everyone put their keys into a bucket to control, let’s say … bad decision making … I’ve been toying with the idea, what if I just had students place their cell phones into a big bucket before class?  Oh, do I reminisce of the days when I taught elementary school where all I had to do was hold out my hand and say, “give it to me, you’ll get it back Friday afternoon!”

Regardless of what method we use, keeping students intellectually engaged results in better short and long term learning. However, now, instead of just having to compete with whatever students have roaming around in their minds to serve as a distraction, we must also attend to the electronic distractions students bring with them to class or beckon them as they study.

In the end, as I used to say about “classroom management” techniques for elementary school teachers … the best method for managing a class effectively, is a well designed and delivered lesson.  For now, I’ll use in class texting as a measure of how engaged (or not engaged) students are, and will use it as motivation to improve the quality of my teaching.

All tips are welcomed.




Filed under Engaging students, Maximizing Cognitive Development, Pedagogy

2 responses to “Unplugging students … We know we need to do it, but is it even possible?

  1. Bonnie


    Here is another article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed on students and being “plugged in.”

  2. Livie

    I try to control student cell phone use in my (math) classes by giving them a “cell phone bonus.” I tell them they have a 10 point cell phone bonus that will be added to their lowest exam score as long as their cell phone doesn’t disrupt class in any way. Typically, this amounts to a 1% bump in their final grade. Obviuously, if their phone rings, it disrupts class, but texting might also be disruptive. Each time the cell phone disrupts class, the student looses 5 points from their cell phone bonus, which could become negative.

    I administer this by making a note on my seating chart if a student looses a portion of their bonus. This policy has really cut down the cell phone use in my classes.

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