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The voice of today’s student – a reason inspired teaching is perhaps more important now than ever before

by: MUN

Irrelevant and unengaging talks are sapping my productivity

By Sol KauffmanThe Martlet (University of Victoria)

VICTORIA (CUP) — It’s 3:00 pm on a Monday and I’m sitting in my afternoon writing lecture. The professor has been reviewing Powerpoint slides for the past half-hour and my attention has inevitably slipped away from the content of the class. I open my laptop and half-listen to the lecture, perking up when a question is asked.

Lots of the chairs in front of me are empty, despite the couple of waitlisted students at the beginning of the term who couldn’t get in. Obviously the usual number of people are skipping class today. In front of me, I see a student on Facebook, another writing in her journal, another texting on his phone. The class is only about twenty-five people, so why aren’t so many of us here, physically or otherwise?

Facebook vs. the faculty

From the ivory towers of university to elementary school, technology is exploding in classrooms, and the way people learn in the information age is turning out to be much different than in years past. Universities are trying hard to adapt to the changing needs of students, and they should be commended for their efforts: high-speed Internet, power plugs near desks, printing labs and computer stations in the library among the steps they’ve taken. But in light of some of the issues brought up by technology use and the change in learning styles, many schools have begun to institute laptop bans and strict attendance policies.

Of course, many professors will tell you that they hate having laptops in their classes, that laptops are disruptive, that students are always on Facebook or surfing the web and that the downsides outweigh the potential benefits. Though a lot of professors have relaxed their rules on laptops after I speak with them in office hours, and the departmental policy doesn’t always stand, it reflects a position on behalf of the faculty.

“Young people increasingly live and work in their technology. Like it or not, they are embedded in it,” said Stephen Hume, one of the writing professors at the University of Victoria (UVic) and a columnist for the Vancouver Sun. “Their artistic entertainment, their work, their research information, their social networking, their classroom work, their communications all reside in the electronic matrix.”

There have been many studies showing a link between the use of laptops in class and students’ reduced capacity to intake information and memorize it, and this has lead to support from faculties and profs for forbidding the use of computers in classes. Last year, for example, a political science professor at McGill University took advantage of a new academic policy and banned all laptops and mobile communication devices from courses he taught. But this is a short-sighted attempt to address the issue.

For one thing, it’s ridiculous to outlaw a tool that most students are going to spend their entire lives engaging with. As Hume put it, “telling students they can’t open the laptop on which they’ve received their assignment, stored their research and written the essay seems about as wise as telling students then can bring textbooks to class but aren’t permitted to open them.”

In second year, I took a music class that focused on computing in music and how digital recording worked. It was very intensive; grasping the key concepts meant asking a lot of questions in class and taking exhaustive notes, and if I had tried to pass by simply cramming before the exams, I would have almost certainly failed.

Many people in other faculties, such as Engineering or Science, find that many of their classes are similar; note-taking is critical and the material being memorized is directly relevant to being able to work in the field. The point is that in a class where my laptop was truly necessary, I wouldn’t have been able to get by without it.

And the flip side of that is the only other time I really use my laptop is when I’m not engaging with the lecture at all. If the course material isn’t interesting, isn’t relevant to my GPA, and isn’t capturing me, then I’m getting a pretty poor return on my tuition investment. And of course I’m going to keep going to class and signing up for these lectures, just like everyone else. But doesn’t the university have a greater responsibility than that?

Aimless attendance

In second year, I registered for an Economics class as an elective for my Creative Writing program. I’d gotten lucky: the professor was a pretty good lecturer, not a boring voice at all, and the content was actually pretty interesting. However, I missed nearly all of the classes that semester. With a huge class size and no attendance policy, nobody noticed me gone. And the times I did sit in I heard no discussion or real reason to stay. After all, the notes were all posted online.

Come midterms and the final exam, I would cram the night before by printing out old versions of the exams and rewriting all the Powerpoint notes by hand to burn them in my memory. I walked into each exam feeling like I had them cold, and I did—I passed the course with an A average. And I wasn’t the only one, either; lots of my classmates did the same thing.

How was I able to skip nearly every lecture and not only pass, but get an A? How can the university justify making some poor professor stand up there and be ignored for four whole months? What does that say about lecture courses in general?

Absenteeism is almost the same deal as laptops. It’s fair to say that skipping class is disrespectful to professors, just like not paying attention is, but from my experience, most people only cut class if they have a fairly legitimate reason.

“Attendance is prescribed by the writing department,” said Hume. “Students know the rules. As adults, I expect students to abide by them. I don’t take formal attendance because I think it’s demeaning. This isn’t elementary school. I’m not your authoritarian Dad. I know my students by name and I know who’s there and who’s not and how often they are away. Everybody has missed an occasional day for illness, or because real life has intruded into their schedule.”

One of the issues is that students don’t bother coming to class if they feel like nobody cares whether they do.

“The smaller the class, the less I skipped,” said Bryce Bladon, a recent graduate of UVic’s writing department. “I found that I placed substantially more value on classes where my attendance affected the learning of others or where my absence would be noticeable to the professor or lecturer. When my presence was valued, I valued my attendance.”

At the end of the day, banning laptops and making penalties higher for skipping class is a band-aid on the problem of people not caring about their courses. Enforcing rules on students takes responsibility away from them, and that in turn encourages them to care even less.

“I take the view that my task is to lead students to water, not force them to drink it,” said Hume. “If they choose not to pay attention or participate actively in the class, then they are robbing themselves, not me or the university. So after 19 years of teaching these workshops, I’m now firmly of the ‘less is more’ school of thought when it comes to the instructor’s control of the process.”

Hume also reports “a consistently higher performance standard” from his students.

“The output is better and the quality of work is much better and their sense of communal obligation to one another is much higher.”

Of course, it’s not possible for every class to have that “hands on” element, but it’s important for professors to keep in mind that the more they engage students the less they have to deal with problems like disrespect, absenteeism and lack of attention.

So what’s a university to do, confronted by this problem? You can’t force students to listen up, and they’re so bored in some lectures that they’re actively doing other work. It’s a waste of students’ time and a waste of professors’ time teaching to a silent room.

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