Apr 10 2017
The Attention Span of 140 Characters or Less
I have noticed a trend with my students. It seems as if they are not doing the readings I assign for class. Or it seems as if they don’t understand what they’re reading and unwilling to ask questions in order to understand the material better.
How dare they not read the material I assign? I should give all of them zeros for participation. I’m not spoon-feeding the information to them. They have to learn how to think for themselves.
These are just some of the thoughts that have raced through my mind regarding this matter. Then a random conversation with one of my undergraduate students last year made me realize that I was wrong in my reading of my students. They were doing the readings. I was not engaging them properly. I was asking questions that required longer answers than they were giving me. I learned to correct the way I ask questions and made sure that I could fire off follow-up questions to get to the material that they needed to know. I also made sure that material was covered in more of a conversational style rather than a Q&A. The Nicholas Carr piece is useful in helping me formulate into words what I had experienced with my students.
“‘We are not only what we read,’ says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. ‘We are how we read.’ Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts ‘efficiency’ and ‘immediacy’ above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains.”
I understand my students capacity to digest information in small bites in order to piece together the whole picture. They are saturated with small bites of information daily. From Twitter to Snapchat to Instagram, these are the ways the current generation of traditional students receive, interpret, and export information. No wonder the shorthand notation of tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) was created. It is is an internet slang expression commonly used in discussion forums as a shorthand response to previous posts that are deemed unnecessarily long and extensive.
Earlier this semester I had decided to enact a no electronic devices policy in my classroom because I wanted my students to truly engage the material I was teaching. I didn’t want the computer screen to be a barrier between them and me. I wanted my classroom to be a place where my students could practice how to formulate ideas, present them to their peers, and get feedback in person before they get into the working world. Since then, I have changed my view on electronics in the classroom. My students can multitask. I have watched them take notes on their computers, answer my questions, and be in conversation with each other almost simultaneously. This is something I would like to improve upon as there a times I feel that I cannot walk and chew bubblegum at the same time.
Rachel Kinzer Corell
April 12, 2017 @ 09:44
Great post, Brett. I really liked your overview of how you changed your teaching practice to reflect new knowledge gotten from that conversation with your student. It is worthy of many high fives:
“Then a random conversation with one of my undergraduate students last year made me realize that I was wrong in my reading of my students. They were doing the readings. I was not engaging them properly. I was asking questions that required longer answers than they were giving me. I learned to correct the way I ask questions and made sure that I could fire off follow-up questions to get to the material that they needed to know. I also made sure that material was covered in more of a conversational style rather than a Q&A.”
THIS IS WHAT TEACHING IS ALL ABOUT. This is an indicator of being a good teacher. After all, it’s hard to engage students, but it’s even harder to figure out how to change what you’re doing to better engage students once you realize something isn’t working.
I often do mid-semester evaluations (informal Doodle polls or something similarly anonymous) to see if there are changes I should make for my students before the semester ends. It’s not easy to do, but sometimes things are important enough to merit shifts mid-semester. Like you, it’s important to me to engage students, even if the process takes a bit of revision and ironing out of issues.
April 12, 2017 @ 11:20
In the classes, I’ve worked with so far, I have experienced a similar effect were students are unwilling to ask questions in regards to homework assignments or projects. I’ve noticed that they are more willing to make something up then to stop by my office or ask me in class. What annoys me is that I don’t know about these issues until I’m grading their work.
It sounds like your shift in teaching style has been for the better and something for myself and others to keep in mind for the future. I’m always skeptical that by making changes like you had mentioned it also makes the assignment easier. At least, I’m scared that if I do it, I might make the assignment too easy and not allow the students to make the necessary connections.
April 12, 2017 @ 14:17
I think Rachel makes a really important point — that as teachers we need to put ourselves in our students’ shoes when possible and adjust our approach accordingly. I’m also a big fan of the mid-semester evaluation of our learning community — giving students the opportunity to tell me what’s working, what’s not, and make suggestions for what they would like to work on always helps it seems. I do also think that especially in the humanities (and probably the social sciences as well), cultivating dispositions for reading in different modes — short, easy, long, complicated, etc. will always be a critical part of our brief. Students do arrive somewhat underprepared in this regard, but that’s what college is for — to build on and develop what’s there and inspire curiosity for more.
April 12, 2017 @ 15:30
I enjoyed reading your post, Brett! One of the most important realizations that came to me over the years is the fact that the student I was (or am) is not necessarily the same as the students before me in class. Unfortunately, without education-based guidance and resources, someone like me whose academic training is for something completely different will only teach the way I think I would want to be taught, which is not necessarily helpful, and certainly ineffective! I admire how you have decided to look beyond what your personal beliefs and perceptions are, and to really consider what students need. Great post!
April 12, 2017 @ 16:04
Thanks for your thoughts Bret, I enjoyed reading it. Its funny how some views can be against including electronics (mobiles/laptops) in the classroom where others believe it benefits them, and each side has valid points. For example, in the college i taught in, all electronics were not allowed to be used in the classroom, and that was a college policy not my own. They believed it will be a distraction and that students will not focus on the instructors teaching, even thought this might not be the case. So, what I plan to do in my future teaching classes is to allow them to use electronics moderately, either certain times of class or certain days only.
August 28, 2017 @ 16:42
Amazing insights! It’s amazing how things change for generations to come. We can learn so much from those before us. But keep in mind. I’ve done a lot of reading on this. For a while now, more recently, information overload is a potential problem. To solve that, we can do meditation, minimizing how we do things with information we gather and take breaks.