Lectures are boring… sometimes
Lectures (whether in-person or virtual) should present information and help students understand content by making connections between ideas, demonstrating or explaining difficult concepts, or simply presenting the information in a way that makes it easier for students to remember the information later. Lectures should highlight important concepts and synthesize information that would otherwise take students hours to find and read. However, lectures are often an ebb and flow of new information and boring redundancy.
Teachers are sometimes blamed for students distracting themselves with technology because they aren’t using teaching methods that “kids today” understand. And it may be true that some courses and instructors are unengaging and boring. However, in the regular flow of a lecture, the information receiver will likely be bored during some parts of the lecture because they already understand a concept, are confused and do not know what is happening in the lecture, or simply find the course subject boring. The presence of occasional boredom is a symptom of group learning, when an instructor is teaching to students of different backgrounds.
The problem with modern technology is that it allows the slightly-bored student to escape immediately. What may have been 60 seconds of boredom turns into 240 seconds of distraction. The threshold for distraction is lowered, because we are given instant positive feedback of being entertained by checking our electronic devices. We have now missed some portion of the lecture and are slightly lost, which is may mean that understanding the lecture is difficult. We receive the negative reinforcement that lecture is boring. We distract ourselves with technology again.
I have been a student in networked and non-networked classrooms. And over and over again, students are playing on a computer or phone. Sometimes there is no pretense- the student is watching YouTube the entire class. But often it’s not continuous- just having email or a website up, or looking up something online that is class related. But the ability to escape is a constant pull. Maybe we’re only looking at our phones for 15 minutes out of the 50 minute lecture, but we’re thinking of checking them for another 15.
It’s technology’s fault for [not] being there
Technology in the classroom can be distracting. And it seems to be a problem with two knee-jerk solutions: 1) Get rid of all technology or 2) Incorporate all possible technology into the classroom.
I lean towards the first response. I’m not saying that technology cannot be incorporated into a course. Various platforms allow us to instantly and easily submit assignments, provide feedback and grades, and exchange information. They allow us to engage in distance learning and online discussions. And technology can be used to engage students.
But technology in a class can facilitate distractions. Teachers shouldn’t give up on trying to keep students focused on the lecture instead of their phones and computer screens. It shouldn’t be included in a course just because it can be. Do we need to give students more-expensive electronic versions of equipment or integrate phone applications into a class?
Conversely, technology shouldn’t be used because it’s easier to facilitate and grade than in-person interactions. By replacing in-person with online discussion, words are stripped of their tone and corresponding body language. After spending time crafting the perfect blog post, might we not be a bit defensive about people questioning our ideas? Or reading someone’s post after a bad week of work may result in a negative interpretation of a neutral comment.
I enjoy writing and reading. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t write. Writing forces us look at our rambling thoughts and structure them into coherency. It allows us to pick out our best arguments and cut redundant and contradictory information. I simply question whether instead of encouraging more individual interfacing with the whole of the internet or on a virtual platform just shared with a class, we should be encouraging communication in the physical world.
15 thoughts on “Get those kids [with their technology] off my lawn”
It’s quite refreshing to hear the note of caution in your post. You gave the reader two options for dealing with technology in the classroom: ban it completely, or network all the things, and I believe that many people have felt that way in the face of this enormous tide of ever-sleeker devices, ubiquitous updates, and ever-faster internet speeds. However, I agree with the title of the article you linked just before that: there can be a “third way”. This image of the teacher in a constant tug-of-war with technology for the attention of their students doesn’t have to be the new normal. We can have a nonzero-sum game here, one in which students can bring their devices to class, even use them, *and* the teacher can maintain their attention–within reason, because as Robert Talbert heavily implied in his article, the human attention span is only so long.
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Also, love the title!
Yes, I think there is sometimes a false dichotomy in these discussions, which stifles useful conversations about how to use technology. Technology is neither good nor bad in these contexts and doesn’t have to be all or nothing… we need to be discussing how and why we use it.
Thank you for your thoughtful post. I have a few things to say:
I like and agree with your ontology of the problem : instant gratification from rich media (insta/fb) sends the wrong message to the mind about what is stimulating and what is boring. I also agree that just because we have access to some form of technology doesn’t mean we have to incorporate it in our teaching. I have seen catastrophic cases of this.
What I’m not so sure of is the long term prospect. If we hold on to what seems to work now, and don’t experiment with the tools(toys?), eventually, we will end up with an archaic system that fails to relate to the younger generation, let alone inspire them. As you mention in your post, the idea of designing things that can only be used in educational purposes (apps or devices) is one way to deal with this, but I find it expensive and restrictive.
I like to imagine that it is possible to disrupt the digital norms of what is exciting: overtly injecting educational themes into the endless foodstagram feed, or shout outs to interesting researches in the midst of twitter fights. This way all intellectual discussion finds its way to the public, and for some students, it might turn out to be just as fascinating. This, of course is closer to your option 2.
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I’m not sure about the long-term solution, either. I have two main thoughts:
1) teaching boredom. I see this as a larger societal issue, not just an issue in academics. With our smart phones and mobile data, we are being taught through experience that if we ever feel slightly bored, we can entertain ourselves immediately. Societally, we should be teaching appreciation of silence and of simply being and observing the world around us and of engaging our imaginations in moments of boredom by thinking and day dreaming. It’s in these blank spaces that we are able to make connections between ideas or have new thoughts.
2) Yes, we experiment with using technology! But experiment implies that only a portion on instructors do so in order to determine the impact, there is a design, metrics for measuring success and failure, and reproducible methods. What I object to is the insertion of technology without thought-out reasoning or follow-up with students to determine whether is was beneficial. (I think that this process should exist for all aspects of the course- how else are we to improve as instructors and improve as course designers?)
In crafting my response to your post made me think more about my initial curmudgeonly reaction of “not all our courses can or should be using this new-fangled social media.” But in thinking about how social media would be pointless in an introductory science course, I starting thinking about how I could teach students how to communicate complicated subjects to non-scientists by crafting twitter posts or teach students how to identify good and bad science using facebook “news” articles. Social media becomes a tool for meeting other course objectives through mediums students are familiar with.
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How many of us haven’t looked around a classroom and watched people type out emails, like Facebook posts, and, you know, watch an entire Youtube video? This is too real, which is why I’m open and real about this fear of mine with my students. I’m open with my students about being that person in my college physics class…and I’m open about being shocked that, after not having paid attention for an entire month, I didn’t get the grade I was somehow expecting on that first test. I’m also open about my desire for them to be open with me. Together, we have conversations about what my students need in my class, why they’re using what they’re using, and whether we need to reconsider our approaches (and yes, “our” includes me).
As an educator, I have no desire to be some hierarchical figure telling my students what to do, though I’m of course not wanting to encourage them to give in to the draw of tuning out. That being said, I appreciate your point on encouraging communication in the physical world. I agree! Incorporating real-world, hands-on learning works—and works better than absent-minded, passive information-transfer-style learning.
I admit that a large portion of my “no technology in the classroom” feelings stems from my own experiences of feeling distracted by them- including just looking around a classroom and seeing other people watching youtube is distracting to me.
Yes, I don’t want to dictate to students how they must learn, and I want them to make the right decisions for themselves, but… they won’t necessarily make that decision. And their technological goofing off is potentially leading other students to do the same.
I really loved your emphasis on “encouraging communication in the physical world” in your last paragraph! As a communication scholar, digital learning is a bit of a hot topic in the field, and yet I feel like sometimes face-to-face interaction is not something that can be replaced. As a GTA for public speaking, I can guarantee that students who show up to class and engage with others are more prepared than those who rely only on digital learning. I do think it has a place, but I’m not sure where I fit on the spectrum of digital resources yet! Loved your perspective.
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Plus one for “encouraging communication in the physical world”! Humans learn through interaction (with other people, ideas, the world around them, etc.) and reflection on experience. So I think as teachers we always want to be attentive to ways to leverage those interactions for the student’s benefit. F2F communication is hard to beat, but so, too, are thoughtfully curated networks (not a synonym of social media, BTW). We definitely need to talk about how to keep our devices from distracting us during class, but I think it’s equally importantto attend to the quality of the in person interaction. Students can be as distracted during a lecture they are listening to in person as they are during one they watch through the LMS. The problem isn’t (just) the phones and laptops, it’s also the choice of instructional method. Lectures are good for some things, but not for others, so we should be clear in our own minds about why we’re lecturing.
Also, I think the point about cultivating “boredom” is really important. I’d probably substitute “quiet,” or “revery” for a word that has a negative connotation, but I definitely agree that our ability and desire to be alone with our thoughts and to remain focused on something long form and complicated (i.e. a lecture) has taken a hit and needs help.
Wonderful title and images here, BTW!
I’ve been in a bit of a reverie over the concept of boredom, and I think that I want to revise my initial post…
Learning to engage in reverie and contemplation outside the classroom could help students learn to ingest and intellectually process information- including within the lecture format. I know I am not alone in that when I isolate myself from technology I am naturally more engaged in introspective thinking- which leads to creative thinking, problem solving, or just understanding concepts. But the step before that often involves stepping away from other distracting and fun inputs. (I often mute my phone/turn off my wifi or go for a walk when trying to troubleshoot a problem or ingest a complicated idea). In the classroom setting, where the only input is the lecture or discussion or group project, a student can engage in this type of thinking about the topics. However, in order to do so, they probably need to set their technological (and other non-classroom) distractions aside.
In a typical classroom lecture setting, I think that a student will find being lectured to boring, if they are not engaging in active listening/learning (or whatever the correct pedagogical term). Instead of encouraging students to learn to “be bored,” I would want students to recognize that boredom is often a step to introspective thinking AND that they can alleviate boredom by being engaged in information transfer process.***
Yes- you’re being told the parts of the atmosphere in this lecture, but how does each new term fit with previous terms? How does this information fit with the information you’ve already learned about chemical processes?
This concept is at the foundation of those “handwriting notes are better than computer notes” studies. Because instead of transcribing (a passive experience), you are synthesizing when making handwritten notes, because none of us know shorthand anymore. Instead of students scrambling to write down definitions they could look up later in the textbook or slides, they should be thinking about understanding the terms, how they fit into the larger picture of the course/field/understanding of life.
I’m not saying that we (lecturers) have no role in making classes interesting or engaging to students. We should be helping them understand complex concepts and make connections. I’m simply pointing out that students themselves must be willing and able to engage the material.
*** I’m not claiming here that all lectures are created equal- let’s assume for the sake of argument that the lecture/lecturer are not “below average” and an entirely pointless waste of time.
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Absolutely — I’m sure we’ll talk about a lot of this in class tonight. I think the main thing I want to note here is that,”information transfer” is not one of the four things lectures are good for. (Even though a lot of lectures are premised on that idea.)
Yes… but I disagree. I like lectures as information transfer. I have sat in on classes without credit to get information transfer.
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I liked your perspective on boredom. Being a student, I have tried to engage myself as much as possible when I would feel bored. The problem was, after certain attempts I would just give up. To blame the lecture/lecturer is not a focus here. However, I don’t know what I could have done more. So, going back to your original post and the statement liked by everyone else here, “encouraging communication in the physical world”. I think the most boring lectures were when I had to hear the lecture continuously for 50/75 minutes. The attention span is different for everyone and unless something is completely mind-blowing, the attention would be lost after some time. If that can be understood and strategies incorporated for that, lectures can sure be fun!
Oh, I agree. Some 45 min classes I can pay attention to almost the entire thing. Others… far less than that. I think our personal interest in the material and the professor make a huge difference.
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Yes- hopefully we can teach students to communicate verbally/in person and in writing/online. Both are skills they need, but it seems that tomorrow’s undergrad will probably have the most experience with short, casual written communication. We need to develop that into professional written communication (and technology can be great for that!) and help develop those in-person communication/discussion skills.
In my experience, in person discussions allow you to share more informally than online chats, because you’re feeding off of others in the room. You go down all sorts of interesting tangents that can facilitate learning. You can share half-formed thoughts that others can build on and asking questions in that type of setting often feels more casual and less accusatory. “Why do you think that?” can be taken all sorts of ways when the in person context is someone making verbal and physical signs that they actually want the answer in order to understand.