I’m going to be bold here and ask a question: “Does anyone pay attention in lectures?”
Of course some students do, but the majority are busy with other things: Facebook, emails, applying to internships (I hope you see the irony of this), reading, texting and now - what is most trendy - viewing images. Obviously not just any images but powerful images. Witty images. Funny images. Cute images. Images that really spark an emotion. In a couple of my classes if I sit in the back and look around, I can see a handful of people that are using laptops looking at images on Imgur.
The days in which students could only spend boring classes napping are gone. The same goes with the age of merely texting. College students are notorious for multitasking. To think that we only text in class or only go on Facebook is outlandish.
If you look hard enough, you’ll find every student tackling assignments, projects, conversations and learning all at once using multiple technological devices. I’ve never seen an Internet browser open with only one tab.
Despite their lack of attentiveness in class, students remain innocent. Their attention spans and levels of motivation are flexible. Most would say they “go with the flow.” And most importantly, almost all of these students still pass their classes. That’s what the University of Wisconsin wants, isn’t it?
With all of this in mind, the question isn’t whether it’s good or bad, right or wrong, that students don’t pay attention – the question is why students don’t pay attention. Clearly students’ choice to not pay attention in class has no effect on their ability to get good grades and by extension to understand the content lectured. In fact, the graduation rate at UW continues to increase despite the decreased amount of attention paid by the students.
While I could take a few guesses as to why students don’t pay attention, I thought I had better conduct research before I made any assumptions. Also, it seemed fitting to discover whether this is something specific to UW or if there is attention deficit at other universities. So I posted a status on Facebook and waited for responses – could there possibly be a better way to investigate technological distractions?
The research revolves around two important questions – if and how students use their laptop in class, and why they don’t pay attention. Here are some responses.
“I never use my laptop, but I’m ALWAYS scrolling through Imgur on my phone,” said Kathryn Olson, a senior at Northern Illinois University. “I do it because most of my professors already post their notes online and I just study off of those later. For the classes that don’t post notes online, I make sure my phone is away and that I take notes. Because then I would be screwed.”
Can you relate? Initially I thought to myself, “then why do we even have teachers?” Praying this was a special case, I decided to take my research elsewhere to Loyola University Chicago and got feedback from a senior, Katie Christensen.
“I rarely use my phone in class, because I feel like teachers view that as a direct insult,” she said. “As for my laptop, I’m usually flipping through a series of websites checking for updates, like (all 6) email, Facebook, LinkedIn, class notes through our note server. I’m doing this because with my schedule, I always have something I should be doing. In the business world.”
While the question of whether or not multitasking is beneficial is still up for debate, it seems for Katie, it is. College students have an incredible amount expected from them – whether they’re in the business world or not – and multitasking while attending lectures is a safe way to work on fulfilling those expectations. Or so it seems.
Unsatisfied with my investigation, I found writer Hemi Gandhi had done similar research on students using Facebook. When he asked his classmates why they use Facebook in class, this is what he heard:
“A professor starts regurgitating exactly what they’ve read in the textbook; paying attention won’t clarify confusion; a professor starts on a random tangent that is neither interesting nor relevant; students need a break to refocus; students feel pressed for time and decide to multitask.”
It seems the reason why students do not pay attention in class is two-fold.
First, students are expected to keep up on everything. That means all classes, work, personal projects, relationships and professional connections. A student figures if they can get more or less the same grade paying attention in class as they would if they were also paying attention to setting up a meeting, chatting with a friend about the homework for another class and connecting with people on a website like Imgur – fulfilling social needs that they have more difficulty fulfilling because they already have so much to do – then what’s the point of solely paying attention in class?
The cumulative benefits of multitasking – be they small or large – exceed the singular benefit of paying attention in class.
Secondly, everyone, not just students, must now transform his or her life to cohere with the connection economy – an economy that rewards achievement instead of compliance. Lectures are ineffective because students want interactivity and connectivity, which they find online instead. As they reach to connect in multiple ways online, they become more knowledgeable.
One would imagine students view images for entertainment, as a type of escapism or because they are bored. Truly they view them to connect with other people.
Every image that people laugh at, they connect with. They think, “I know exactly what this person means!” In fact, I made a new friend last week because I saw she was viewing images on Imgur at CoffeeBytes. We talked and found out we are also in the same class together and majoring in journalism. Connection!
This same connection needs to be sought after by the professors who are lecturing. Learning is meant to be an activity. It’s meant to be created through interaction. It’s meant to be engaging.
I would like to take a moment and note there are some professors who are extremely engaging, who naturally attract the attention of all students and who understand that the teaching “norm” has become obsolete. To those professors, thank you.
However, there are still professors that fail to connect with students through their lectures.
Now, students naturally act on what benefits them most. If students are paying less attention to their professors and more attention to interacting with others online, then don’t you think something is seriously wrong with the way professors teach, and not the student? Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, says, “Ironically, by removing lecture from class time, we can make classrooms more engaging and human.”
Isn’t that what we really want? Maybe you can tell me. What is it we really want? Email me. Also feel free to visit the online version of this article and leave a comment, or email me, and tell me why you go online instead of paying attention to class. If you choose not to go online, I would really like to know why you don’t.
Garth Beyer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in journalism.