Teaching is about attention — getting students to pay attention to the material, and to engage with new ideas so they can develop new skills and abilities.
But getting and holding the attention of students has become more difficult since the pandemic, according to many college instructors around the country.
A couple months ago I visited a big public university – Texas State University – and observed three large lecture classes, to get a sense of what teaching looks like these days. I witnessed a high level of students not showing up for class, and in some cases students blatantly staring at TikTok or YouTube videos during class.
This week, in the last of our three-part series, we hear from professors at other colleges with new approaches to connect with students to increase engagement.
One of those professors is Eric Martin, an associate professor in the kinesiology department at California State University at Monterey Bay. He was particularly interested in one theme of this series, which is how much technology seems to be contributing to student disengagement, when students have their phones and laptops constantly tempting them with the latest text or video.
“I thought you’d be interested to hear about an experiment I ran about 5 years ago, (not formal research, just a casual experiment for my own interest),” he wrote.
He kept the classes the same as he’d taught them for years, except that he didn’t allow students to use any tech during class. Martin did this because he was feeling like smartphones and laptops were a major distraction that he feared was keeping his students from learning as much as if he would just ban the gadgets.
But he was surprised by what happened next.
“Statistically, there’s absolutely no difference between the two semesters in average student grades — with or without technology,” he said. ”So it clearly shows that the technology is not this magical evil imp that’s the distraction of everybody. Students are having trouble focusing regardless. They could just stare off into space, or just stare at their desk.”
That’s not to say that he can easily hold students’ attention for a whole lecture. In fact, like all the professors I talked to at Texas State, he noted that student disengagement has gotten worse since the pandemic.
“Last spring was the first time we were back on campus [after COVID disruptions], and you could not get students to talk for anything,” he said. “They were just so used to hiding behind the Zoom camera and not speaking. And there’s been some people that have returned after the pandemic and have enhanced social anxiety in the classroom.”
The situation is so bad that he’s happy if he can get one student to raise their hand, even if it’s the same student every class.
The big question Martin has is how do professors regain this attention? And with his long academic interest and expertise in kinesiology, which is the study of human movement, he has an idea.
“The best hint of an answer I’ve found is in elementary school education where I’ve seen several very good quality experiments where they have had little kids — like every 20 or 30 minutes — they’d have them get up and do some little physical activities to get their wiggles out,” he said.
He added that research shows that these small breaks for physical movement help students regain focus, and “work on cognitive tasks improved.”
And you don’t have to be a little kid to need these time-outs.
“Very few of us as humans learn to sit still and focus for two hours,” he said. “At our university, the standard class length is 80 minutes.”
He said he’d like to try requiring students to get up and move around every 30 minutes. But so far his experiments haven’t had a lot of takers when he’s invited students to stop and take such breaks.
“So I think there’s potential there, but I still have no idea how to get buy-in from the students and make it truly engaging,” he said.
Looking to Game Design
Another email I got had another big idea. It was from Simon McCallum, a professor who teaches video game design at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
He has been working to apply techniques from video game design to how he teaches his lectures.
“Games are engagement engines,” he said. “That’s all they do is engage people.”
One way he does that is to allow classes to vote on which topics they’ll cover, or even propose subjects that they want to spend time on and put those to the class for a vote.
“I give them choices in what they’re learning and how they’re learning,” he said. “And I think that’s one of the things that certainly drives a lot of engagement with games over traditional media is that sense of agency, that ability to be part of what you’re doing rather than just a spectator.”
In his classes, he sees himself not as a main character, but as what in video games are called NPCs, non-player characters preprogrammed into the game to keep the action moving.
“I’m the help character, right?” he said. “I’m a quest giver. I’m here to support their journey, not to be an enemy boss” they have to get past to get a grade.
‘Attention Is Reciprocal’
In both of these conversations with college instructors, one thing stood out. The lecture model works better for the teacher at the front of the room than it does for the students stuck in their desks.
That was one theme of a recent conversation I had with James Lang, a national expert on college teaching who has written several books on the subject, as well as a longtime professor of English at Assumption University in Massachusetts.
“Attention is reciprocal,” said Lang. “We pay attention to people who pay attention to us.”
He had some back-to-basics advice for anyone teaching. That includes making sure to learn every student’s name.
“When somebody says your name, it sort of pops up your attention,” he said. “When you walk into a classroom and you start teaching and you start saying people’s names, they’re gonna pop to life essentially.”
“I get it, it’s hard,” he added. “Learning names is hard. And that’s just part of the work we have to do.”
He also advises walking around the classroom to use the space and show that you see all the students.
As for how he’ll compete with TikTok and the other distractions students often turn to on their devices these days? Lang says he makes a point to have a discussion about his expectations around tech use and misuse on the first day of his classes.
“I have a sort of policy on engagement and tech in the classroom, these are the sort of rules that help us pay attention to each other,” he said. “I invite them to look at it together and then give me feedback on it. And I revise it and bring it back to them, and then they’re asked to sign it actually,” he said.
“I teach a literature class, and sometimes we’re talking about life issues that come up in a work of literature, and students are saying something meaningful about their personal experiences. Nobody should be tuning out at that point and just like looking at their phones; you should be listening to that person,” he explained. “So that’s part of the contract, the social contract of the classroom.”