Like Deer in Headlights

I am a teaching assistant for a professor that travels frequently. This has proven to have both pros and cons; this creates much more work than the average TA, however I have had the opportunity to hop right into teaching at the collegiate level. As I have begun to regularly sub for the professor, there have been challenges along the way. Especially as the students transition from one teaching style to the next, they tend to frequently have a “deer in headlights” look, especially when discussion is expected or questions are posed. Recently, there was such a lack of response when I asked the group as a whole if they understood the material that I literally had to say, “Are we shaking our heads yes or no”? In this course, students are able to bring their laptops and phones to class. Sometimes it seems as though students are much more engaged in what is being displayed on their laptops versus what is taking place in the classroom. The Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom article really resonated with me. Through my undergraduate career, I rarely brought my laptop to class because of how I knew I would be distracted by it.

I do see the argument that typing notes on laptops can be done much more quickly than taking notes by hand and can also be much more legible for both the student taking them and for others. This also serves as an easy way to consolidate notes, update them, and save them for later. Personally, I am an advocate for taking notes by hand, however I do not think it is my place to “choose” that for students as everyone learns differently. My stance at this point in time is that whatever route is chosen, it is essential that expectations be communicated the first day of class.


The Smarter Than You Think reading by Clive Thompson adds to this conversation by shining light on the fact that we don’t have to rely solely on humans or technology; there can be a healthy combination of both. In fact, the integration of the two is often the most beneficial option. Therefore, maybe allowing students to use their computers and phones to perform certain tasks, but asking them to put them away otherwise could be a way to accomplish this. This article brought up a good point that being aware of how technology affects our daily lives (sometimes inhibiting us) is key. As instructors, we can help students to reflect on this concept and be more mindful about technology being a distraction/how technology is a distraction from a personal standpoint. When I peer reviewed Debjit’s course syllabus in class, his statement about the usage of technology in the classroom impressed me. It was like a friendly forewarning about how technology can serve as both a beneficial tool in the classroom or a distraction. He stressed that it was important for students to be able to recognize the role it played for them personally, putting the responsibility on the students, but still allowing freedom of choice.



Photos: png

13 Replies to “Like Deer in Headlights”

  1. Love the pictures in this post! How should we find a happy medium? I think you’re right in that there is only so much we could do as instructors to keep students from getting distracted with their devices. It is important to remind them of how well they work with their laptops, and what it means to them in terms of learning. Ultimately, the choice is theirs. Some students may even need the laptop/other devices, due to disability or special circumstances, as Emma mentioned in her post. The problem is that sometimes a person’s laptop can become a distraction to other students. Whose responsibility is it then? How much power does an instructor have?

    1. Regarding Zhanyu’s post, this is a difficult problem. It becomes even more problematic when we need computers to do the work. One of the courses I hope to teach has a major lab component that is entirely computerized, forget laptops, everyone gets a workstation.

      At that point, how do you stop a student from pulling up Chrome or Firefox and multitasking between that and the program we are running? I guess you could use a firewall to disable access to social media, but that seems overly intrusive, and goes against Paulo Freire’s ideals. You can’t treat students like 12-year-olds who are not allowed to use the internet without parental supervision. This infantilizes and dehumanizes them. I know I’d personally be offended if the computer lab I was supposed to use had nanny software on it. But what if, as Zhanyu suggested, they are distracting the others!?! I know I’ve been in labs where some guy in a row ahead of me was watching live ESPN streams; I was barely able to concentrate on my own work (especially if VT was playing, you’d be surprised how many VT basketball games are scheduled during class hours). I suppose in such situations the professor must act, but otherwise, as Nicole said, we cannot deny them the freedom of choice. Even if they choose to be foolish (though hopefully personal responsibility wins out).

      Shout out to Nicole for excellent graphics.

      1. Hey Alex, your comment really resonated with me about being distracted by what others are doing on their laptops.

        As a student, I often try and sit in the front of the room so that I don’t have to see what others are looking at, and this really helps me maintain focus. (And it helps me to have less of a judgmental attitude towards my classmates.) I can’t claim that I’m not guilty of multitasking during a class now and then, but I try to keep it minimal. I had a class last spring where a girl sat between my line of sight of the professor (classroom was in a U-shape to promote engagement) and I absolutely could NOT concentrate due to her multitasking through class. (Shopping, loud-typing–not of class notes, but on assignments for other courses, browsing social media, and using chat-programs. It was the WORST!)

        Eventually, I just took her seat so that she would be forced to sit “behind” me and I could focus. I personally could care less how other students choose to spend their time in class–except that I generally frown on the act of using one course’s time for another course’s assignments… I wasn’t going to tell her that I couldn’t focus in class because I was too distracted by her screen (that was absolutely unavoidable to look at if I was trying to watch/listen to the professor) but I did make a positive change in the environment that helped me at least. I think this happened to her more than once because by the end of the semester, she had been migrated to the “back” of the class, where her behavior had less of an impact on the rest of us.

        My point is this: you’re right, we can’t really police people and control what they do or how to use their technology…. but we can make changes in our own behavior and environment to help us be more successful in the classroom. I liked what Nicole said about Debjit’s syllabus acknowledging both the positive and negative side effects of technology in the classroom and how it can be both a boon to learning and a distracting and disruptive force. That’s definitely a good start.

    2. Zhanyu – Distractions to others is a good point that you bring up. I don’t believe someone should be allowed to bother another student in that way. I have observed many courses over the past year and even I feel distracted by what is up on some of the students’ screens (i.e. online shopping, watching football, playing video games, etc. Typically if students are not making eye contact for long periods of time, I assume they are browsing the Internet or doing something they are not supposed to do. I don’t mind if a students feels the need to answer an email right away. However, there is a difference between answering a quick email versus going through the entire inbox.

  2. Thanks for you post! I agree with Grace that it’s students’ choices to focus on what professors say or to play laptop. I wonder if we, as an instructors, can do something more than just reminding students. What if we give some penalties on the students caught doing thing irrelevant to the class?

  3. Thanks for your post! I agree that as an instructor, I want to find a happy medium. I want students to take ownership and use technology when it is beneficial and realize when it is distracting. I have seen many students (myself included) get distracted by their phone, something online, or the person sitting next to them. I agree with Alex that I don’t want to be constantly supervising students and making sure they are always on task. And for me, penalizing students for getting distracted would probably not be the approach I would take with my students. As I read through the post and the comments, I was reminded of Faith’s comment several weeks ago about incorporating short breaks into a class where students can check their phones or have a few minutes to check on other things. So maybe a combination of these different ideas could be beneficial. I think having open discussions with students about expectations, the benefits and downsides of technology use, and the impact that our choices can have on other students could be really beneficial for students. And maybe, depending on the class, we can think about ways to incorporate breaks to give students a few minutes to check on other things outside of the class content for the day.

    1. Amy – I like that you bring up that we as instructors (and most as students too) are just as guilty of being distracted by technology ourselves, so it is a bit hypocritical to merely point a finger. Assisting students in becoming mindful about their own personal habits related to technology usage is a great skill that can be used both inside and outside the classroom. First year freshman may need help in developing these types of skills and habits as the transition from high school to college can be a difficult one, or at least challenging one, for many.

  4. All things in moderation is a good rule of thumb, but very difficult in practice as an instructor. I talked about this in my blog post — how hard it’s been for me to develop a tech policy in my class. So far I explicitly ban all Internet devices, except in cases of disability and/or the need to use translation software. I dislike this because tit forces disabled and non-English-fluent students to “out” themselves to their peers. Bethany commented on my post and suggested that I tell students my preference is against device use, explain why, but still allow it – if they sit up front. I like that solution, although it’s still not perfect since it’s not universally applicable; not everyone can sit in the first two rows, and not all classrooms are set up in rows.
    My fear is that the addictive power of tech is so strong that it eclipses our good intention with regards to moderation / “finding a happy medium.” I think we’re all already slightly addicted, so our judgment may be impaired…

  5. I agree with Alex’s comment about not treating students like 12 year olds and policing what they do on their or lab computers. Maybe our focus should be on developing a more inclusive and engaging class rather than focusing on how to stop or curtail use of technology or penalize it?

  6. Hi Nicole! I enjoyed your post this week. I, like many, am struggling with this idea of finding a “happy medium” and figuring out how to be successful in creating a culture in the classroom that supports learning but doesn’t nanny the students.

    I can relate to your story about posing questions to the students only to receive a deer-in-the-headlights stare. It’s so hard sometimes to get students to speak! Why is that? I am often a little self-conscious because I have gotten to a point in my life where I really enjoy engaging in the classroom. I feel like if I’m going to be paying what I pay to be here, I better get right on in there and participate in the discussion. It really is how I get the most out of a class-by offering comments and having my views challenged, supported, or turned on their head by professor and contemporaries. I know that I can’t grow if I don’t speak up!

    I, too, am a big fan of hand-writing my notes, but I sometimes do use Word or Google Docs in an attempt to incorporate fresh practices into my educational repertoire. And you’re so right, everyone is different, so who am I to tell them how best to take notes? I appreciate what Emma was saying about banning internet devices in the classroom. Sometimes we do have to make firm rules like this in order to keep a course on track so the learning objectives can be achieved.

  7. Great post!
    From experience, I think a workable solution needs to alleviate the sheer terror that a lot of undergraduates experience during lectures at the idea of of missing key pieces of information.
    I would champion the use of dictaphones, ie. have minimal note taking in class, but provide a recording of the lecture so that additional notes can be made at a later date. I favor a recording over making slides available, because again from experience, students are likely to just use the slides as their notes which defeats the whole object.

  8. Great article! I will say that I too struggle with this idea of whether to have laptops be present in the classroom or not. I struggle because it was only in graduate school did I value typing my notes on my laptop, before then, I was old school and a pen and paper note taker. Now though, I do agree with you, it is up to the student to choose what is best for them.

  9. That is the best blog for anyone who needs to find out about this topic. You notice a lot its virtually laborious to argue with you (not that I actually would need…HaHa). You undoubtedly put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. Nice stuff, simply nice!

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