Laptops, Tablets, and Phones in the Classroom

Laptops, Tablets, and Phones in the Classroom


I settled on my New Year’s resolution while giving a lecture to 85 masters students. It was one kid who unintentionally suggested the idea. He was sitting in the back row, silently pecking away at his laptop the entire class. At times, he smiled at his screen. But he rarely looked up at me. I had a choice. I could disrupt the class to single him out. Or I could do what most teachers in higher education do: just ignore it. After all, these students are adults, and they have to take a final exam. Do I have to be the disciplinarian?…

Since most students can type very quickly, laptops encourage them to copy down nearly everything said in the classroom. But when students stare at the screen of their laptops, something is lost. The students shift from being intellectuals, listening to one another, to being customer-service representatives, taking down orders. Class is supposed to be a conversation, not an exercise in dictation. 

And so Tal Gross, assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia, is banning laptops from his classroom. As he notes, research has found that “laptops in the classroom distracted not only the students who used them, but also students who sat nearby,” and that students seem to do better when taking notes by hand rather. “The students who took notes longhand scored much higher on conceptual questions than did the students who used a laptop.”

Given that engagement, dialogue, and facility with “conceptual questions,” are so important in a philosophy class, Gross’s reasons for banning laptops and the like would seem fairly compelling, provided there are accommodations made to allow students who need to use them for accessibility/disability reasons.  Have others tried this? How did it go?

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Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

I tried this, and it went very badly: students were resentful and sullen about it, and became, if anything, even less engaged. I became The Adversary.

So, I went entirely in the other direction, though for a wider range of reasons: I stopped lecturing altogether and switched to problem-based learning . . . so that students’ internet access became a resource for groups working on complex problems in practical ethics, and peer pressure kept students from becoming (too) distracted by other kinds of media.

I’m still refining the approach. One issue I now have is students using Google Docs as the medium for collaborative work, so I might have a group of six students, each looking at her or his own screen, with six cursors moving around, adding and editing text at once. I’m working on ways of addressing this, including having students try out different ways of collaborating (paper, white board, one screen, etc.), then reflect on the difference the medium makes in the way they work together.Report

Ross McKinney
Ross McKinney
6 years ago

I teach a masters course on research ethics every year. Most of the students are physicians, and many are often on call, so they had a reasonable protest when I suggested banning laptops. At the suggestion of colleague, the rule is that anyone whose laptop is open has volunteered to answer a question – and in a discussion course like mine, they’re pretty much guaranteed to be put on the spot. It works – open laptops are rare, and I don’t need to appear to be a luddite.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

I do this with every class. (It is important to invite people to give reasons for being an exception.) I apologise, give my reasons, and point to one or two of the many relevant studies. But I usually find students familiar with the policy, receptive to it, and appreciative. The policy dramatically improves attentiveness and participation. In the end students always agree it is a good policy. I recommend this very strongly.Report

Julia
Julia
6 years ago

I am very tempted to ban laptop use, but here’s one complication: many of the readings I assign are PDFs that I upload to the class website, and I want students to have those texts in front of them during class. Should I force my students to print these out? (Yes, I could compile a course packet at the beginning of the semester, but that (a) dramatically increases the cost for students, and (b) prevents me from changing the readings during the semester in accordance with student interest.) Does anybody have a good solution to this problem?
I am also quite worried about drawing attention to students with disabilities that way.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

Julia: I don’t allow laptops in my classes, and I just tell the students to print the readings out ahead of time. It doesn’t seem to create much of a problem. After all, even if you allow laptops, the students who don’t have one would still be forced to print out the readings, and if they can handle it, there shouldn’t be any reason why the other students can’t, too.
The main worry I see is about the use of paper (35 students printing out 10 15-page articles per class is a lot), but it’s worth it to me to not have to compete with Facebook and Youtube while I’m lecturing. Maybe I don’t care about trees enough, though.Report

Michael Brent
6 years ago

I’m fortunate to teach classes with fewer than 35 undergraduates, sometimes as few as 10, and the “No Electronic Devices” (NED) policy seems to work well. The use of laptops is permitted for those students with a documented need, but otherwise they are asked to take notes by hand. And like Anonymous (9:37 AM) said above, students are familiar with the policy, receptive to it, and it appears to improve attentiveness and participation. Very highly recommended.Report

Anonymous Grad
Anonymous Grad
6 years ago

I banned laptops and tablets for a introductory writing seminar last semester, and will do it again this upcoming semester.

My students did not complain, and from what I have gathered from discussions with other instructors of similar seminars, the discussions in my class were above average in quality. Several times during the semester, it seemed to me that certain students just “woke up” and realized that participating in class was more fun than zoning out completely with nothing to do. I used a textbook so they didn’t have to print out reading assignments.

Some students resorted to checking their phones and old school doodling instead of laptop enabled forms of boredom relief. I was fine with that.Report

Dale Miller
6 years ago

I did it last semester for the first time, and then promptly found out I had a student who needed a laptop for a disability accommodation. Rather than single her out, I changed course. I produced a “laptop contract,” which students who wanted to use laptops in class could sign. In it, they agreed that they would only use the laptop for class-related purposes: no FB, email, or other sites. I was entitled at any time to tell them to stop typing so that I could come over and check their screen (which I never did). Fewer than usual students seemed to use laptops this term.

My bigger problem is with phones. I did ban those, and yet despite repeated reminders I had students who couldn’t seem to put them down. I’m either going to have start calling out people in class or just drop the policy, since having rules that you don’t enforce only penalizes students mature enough to self-police. I’m not paternalistic enough to impose the rule for the benefit of the people doing the texting, but it is a distraction for me and so does indirectly affect other students.Report

Mike Valdman
Mike Valdman
6 years ago

Shockingly well. I banned them in my lower level classes about four years ago and I haven’t had a single complaint. The only explanation I can think of is that most of the students were glad to be free of the burden of having to exercise self-restraint.Report

Rich Cordero
Rich Cordero
6 years ago

I have mixed feelings about this kind of policy. Speaking from the perspective of someone with a disability, the practice of making exceptions for students with documented needs is a pretty bad one. It ends up singling out those students and requiring that they ‘out’ themselves as disabled. This is something with which many students might not be comfortable. It’s much better not to implement a policy that imposes yet a further burden on students with disabilities. And yet, I find myself frequently distracted by the thought that my students are not paying attention or that they’re distracting other students.Report

Bryan Frances
Bryan Frances
6 years ago

One thing you can do with students who can’t take notes by hand because of a disability: give them your lecture notes (or some portion of them) ahead of time. That way they don’t need to use their laptops, or the need is greatly diminished anyway. Of course, you have to get them to promise to not distribute the notes. Alternatively, have the audio of the lectures recorded for them.Report

Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
6 years ago

It’s pretty standard in law schools to disallow laptops. Those tend to be larger classes where policing really would be a problem, so makes sense. You’d think more people would complain about all that note-taking by hand, but most people just don’t seem to care. I think policies in undergraduate classes would be met with more resistance.Report

ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

The disability issue is far more important to me than the ‘distracted student’ issue. I allow laptops in my classroom and I have great participation and discussion. I don’t trust our anecdotal data about banning laptops and/or our ability to detect changes in student learning or resentment (though if you’re happy with your results then that’s fine).

I think the data probably does point to a slight positive effect for classrooms without laptops but:

1. I don’t think there is any way to adequately address the ‘singling out your disabled students’ problem. If the whole point of banning laptops was to improve student note-taking then offering to just give disabled students your lecture notes (as Bryan Frances suggests) appears self-defeating. The same research that touts the benefits of hand-written notes will tell you that dropping a load of notes onto a student is not good in terms of learning.

2. I think there is a lot to be said for letting students fail. Mike Valdeman seems to think students appreciate not having to practice self-restraint. I’m certain that they do, in fact, appreciate this. What I’m less certain of is that it is good for us to rob them of that opportunity.

3. I do not have any qualms with cold-calling my students or with walking down the isles as I engage in lecture/discussion. I can AND WILL walk over to students who are using their computers in irrelevant ways. I’m happy to single them out and embarrass them (this takes a deft touch but I’m comfortable with my ability to do this in a way that works for me pedagogically). I don’t find this approach as paternalistically problematic as the straight ‘no laptops’ rule.Report

Scott Clifton
Scott Clifton
6 years ago

I have had a no electronics policy for years and it has had a tremendously positive effect. I agree that it’s less than ideal for disability students, but I have also made exceptions for students who come to me after class and explain how their handwriting is simply too poor for them to take effective notes. In these cases, other students may have assumed that the exceptions were all disability students, but I don’t think it makes much of a difference after the first few classes. I agree with Dale Miller, though, about phones. This is much harder to enforce, since apparently the temptation to look at one’s phone is too strong for many students–even when I regularly call individuals out about it. And sure enough–the ones who can’t put their phones away are the ones most obviously checked out. In justifying my no electronics policy, I tell students about the Northwest Airlines flight that overshot the scheduled airport because the pilot and co-pilot were looking at their laptops. (http://abcnews.go.com/Travel/northwest-pilots-missed-airport-laptops-discussing-scheduling/story?id=8920291) I try to make the point that it’s not because students are particularly bad at learning and using their laptops. We’re all subject to distraction when it comes to electronics. But that’s reason to resist the temptation. I also make the point that Dale Miller makes above: I’m not being paternalistic, even though it is in the student’s best interests not to use a laptop or phone. I do it because it makes my job more difficult when half or more of the students are miles away when they are checking Facebook, Twitter, or texts.Report

Sigrid
Sigrid
6 years ago

Has anyone experimented with a “no wireless” policy? That would eliminate the surfing, but not the note-taking. Whether that could be done by use of a blocker or by voluntary compliance (similar to what Dale Miller describes above, but specifically asking them to turn off wireless and other data streams) That seems like it would take care of most issues. Students who like to use google docs could transfer their notes after class. Likewise, they could download materials prior to class.Report

JAS
JAS
6 years ago

Students like to charge their cell phones during class where I teach. I don’t allow it and am pretty strict about enforcing the policy. The students who want to charge their phones are turned off initially, but I tell them that I don’t want my classroom to look like my living room, and then relay the usual story about how phone charging can be disruptive. The funniest (and saddest) story was told to me by my chair: one student tripped over another student’s charging phone, broke it, and they then had an argument during class about who was going to pay for it.Report

Phil Yaure
Phil Yaure
6 years ago

Since it’s probably been a while since some people on this thread have sat on the side of the lecture hall where you can see what undergrads are doing on their screens, here’s some recent anecdotal data on what some folks do:
-Use pdfs of papers, including search functions to identify relevant passages. Then raise these passages in questions later in lecture or discussion.
-Use Wikipedia/Stanford Encyclopedia to quickly reference people or ‘isms’ glossed by professors in lecture.
-Take notes in consolidated formats (keeping a single document for a whole course).
-Reference notes from other courses for purposes of discussion or asking questions in lecture.
-Reference powerpoints, lecture notes, or other items posted by professors (for the lecture they’re attending or a related one).
-Look up emails with deadlines professors have forgotten
-Pass along interesting (or funny or enraging) comments in lecture to other students.
-Record lectures
-Use databases (like philpapers) to look up papers relevant to lecture (or to help out a professor who has forgotten a citation)

Yes, there’s lots of facebook, gmail, (less) youtube, 2048, tetris, Buzzfeed, NYT, homework for other courses, etc., too. Yes, many of the above things can be done without wireless. Yes, we all got along just fine without these things in the past. But let’s also recognize that wired classrooms can do some pretty cool things that can, in fact, contribute to ‘quality learning.’Report

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

It’s interesting, following this discussion. I’ve been trying to sort out some of the basic considerations in play, here, and have posted some notes on my own blog: http://bit.ly/1Dcl4po

It seems unlikely that one approach will fit all classrooms or even all activities. Though I have no blanket ban on electronics, and I do try to help students to develop a thoughtful and responsible approach to using electronics in the classroom, there are some activities for which I ask students to power down their devices, and some assignments on which I forbid any electronic help at all, according to the nature of that one assignment.

In any case, what seems to be called for is an attentive balance between respect for the autonomy of students and reasonable concern for creating conditions in which they will be better off.Report

Chris Surprenant
6 years ago

I’ve had a no electronics policy in my class since I began teaching and I’ve never encountered any problems. All of my classes (even the larger introductory courses) are run dialectically, so I don’t do much in the way of lecturing (and I discourage rigorous note taking). When I assign pdf articles in upper-level courses, I require the students to print out the articles. I also make it known at the beginning of the semester that if anyone has a disability where they need to use some sort of laptop or tablet, to let me know and we can work with that. (But I’ve never encountered anyone like this, and, generally, I think the number of people this would apply to is very, very low.)

Even with the electronics policy, you still have kids that are texting in class. It’s distracting to me and distracting to the other students. So I also have a “phone quiz” policy. Whenever I see a student on his/her phone, I identify the offender, stop class, and we have a quiz. The student who had his/her phone out gets a 0 on the quiz and the rest of the students have to take it. Phone quiz grades are connected to some small percentage of each student’s participation grade. The students know that if there are no phone quizzes during the semester, then each student will receive full points in this area (so phone quizzes can only hurt them). It only takes one or two of these quizzes during the first week or two of the semester before the students start policing themselves.

Combined, both of these policies have virtually eliminated distractions from electronics in class.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
6 years ago

I like Phil Yaure’s comment. When dealing with long texts or articles, it is enormously useful to be able to search the text for a single term and cross check the places where it appears. I also find using a laptop to take searchable (and easy to organize) notes, very helpful. As a somewhat disorganized undergraduate who had to travel often, it is also very unlikely that I would have kept all of my notebooks of notes over the years–but I have all my typed notes, and still refer back to them as a grad student at times. The more detailed the notes, the more useful they have been to me. I had plenty of professors as an undergrad who used analytic jargon that I thought I was understanding at the time, but that I know now that I was only getting some aspects of. Had I not taken such detailed notes, I wouldn’t be able to go back and see the full weight of what they were saying now that I have more training

A socio-economic issue might also be raised here. Printing things over time becomes expensive. Also, using a laptop means being able to buy cheap kindle versions of many books as opposed to more expensive hard copies. I, and a few other people I knew, chose not to take classes we were interested in because of increased book costs due to no laptop policies..Report

A Person
A Person
6 years ago

I’m glad that this was brought up for discussion, because I’ve been wanting to find out whether I’m in the wrong to employ a no-laptops policy in my classes. I’m an advanced grad student, and I’ve taught maybe six or seven classes of my own (in addition to the classes for which I’ve served as TA). In my earlier classes I allowed laptops because I thought it would help with note-taking. After all, when I was an undergraduate, I often used my laptop to take down a bunch of notes during history lectures. In those classes, typing my notes was the only way I could keep up with the professor.

I later came around to realizing two things that changed my mind about the issue. First, philosophy lectures and discussions often don’t move along so quickly that students need to type their notes to keep up. If you’re up there reciting a script that you expect your students to memorize, then that’s a different story. But you probably don’t (and shouldn’t) teach that way.

Second, in my third year or so I was a TA for a pretty large intro class in which I sat behind a large percentage of the students on a regular basis. I was therefore able to see what they were doing on their laptops. During the course of the semester, there was very little philosophy going on with most of those students and a whole lot of really worthless web surfing. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t distracting to other people, and I could just let those students waste their time and not pay attention in class. But given that it does distract other people, it seems like a good idea to get rid of the distraction.Report

DC
DC
6 years ago

I think banning laptops is a good idea; paternalistic maybe, but best for the students.

I will say however, that I side with Socrates; incessant note-taking is not necessarily a virtue. It always irritated me when professors would go off on a long rant about how the only way to properly learn was to transcribe what they said and then go home and read it and re-transcribe it. Some of us learn better by listening, and note-taking is a distraction.Report

Anon professor
Anon professor
6 years ago

I introduced a no-screens policy after it became clear that discussion suffered when a critical mass of students were looking at their screens and not at me or at one another. I’ve had almost no complaints and many positive comments. I do give the students warning, though, by sending out an email to enrolled students before the first day of class. My main concern is not with the individual laptop-users themselves, but with the distracting effect on other students. There’s a good piece about this in a recent Washington Post, which compares laptop use in class to secondhand smoke: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/25/why-a-leading-professor-of-new-media-just-banned-technology-use-in-class/Report

Daniel Nagase
Daniel Nagase
6 years ago

I’m a bit worried that not many here are engaging with Bob Kirkman’s insightful comment. The first thing to note is that, although I do believe that the lecture-discussion model has many advantages, we should indeed think if other models are not more efficient, and whether the use of electronics in those models shouldn’t be encouraged. Secondly, it seems to me that, be that as it may be, instead of simply banning electronic devices, one should instead look for ways of integrating them in the classroom.Report

ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

Instead of sharing confirmation-bias-laden anecdotes, would it be possible to shift the focus on the data?Report

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

I guess, for me, it comes down to this: I consider one of the goals of the kind of teaching I do – practical ethics – is to help my students become more thoughtful and responsible adults. It seems counter-productive, then, to impose policies that effectively treat them as children who are unable to look after themselves. The more arbitrary and manipulative the policy – and some of the more creative suggestions here are frankly quite manipulative – the more infantilizing they are likely to be.

On the other hand, students do sometimes still act like children.

I suspect a more constructive approach would be one that helps students to think critically about the natural consequences of their various ways of engaging – or not- in the work of the class, but leave the choice (as much as possible) in their own hands.Report

James Genone
James Genone
6 years ago

A couple of years ago I started presenting my students with some empirical data regarding laptop use in the classroom, and then gave them the choice of whether or not to use them (I did say that students who chose to use them should sit in the back, and that if it was ever disruptive or distracting I would revoke the privilege). Since I started this practice, not one student has chosen to use a laptop in one of my classes. Here is a link to a handout I used recently to present some of the relevant data: http://web.stanford.edu/class/linguist156/laptops.pdf.Report

Chris Surprenant
6 years ago

@Daniel Nagase – Daniel, I don’t know anyone who has thought seriously about good pedagogical practices who believes that the lecture/discussion model we see at most of our larger colleges and universities is the best way for instilling knowledge. It’s just the most convenient way to structure classes given other priorities (reducing teaching loads, lowering instruction costs, putting “big name” professors in front of a larger group of students, etc.).

More generally, I don’t believe the primary reason for restricting laptops and other electronic devices in the classroom is paternalistic. College students are adults. If they don’t want to pay attention in class (or even not show up to class), who am I to make that decision for them? But when students are screwing around on their computers or phones, it distracts the students around them, and that is worth policing.Report

Daniel Nagase
Daniel Nagase
6 years ago

@Chris Surprenant – I’m a bit puzzled by your reply. While it’s true that convenience is obviously a factor when designing a class, I don’t think it’s the main factor. Are you arguing that the convenience advantages greatly outweigh the advantages of trying out different class models? (I’m not being facetious, by the way; as I said, I’m not entirely sure I understood your position)

As for electronic devices distracting other people, that is only an argument if banning is the only solution to it. But even in a strict lecture/discussion model, I’m not sure it is.Report

Chris Surprenant
6 years ago

Daniel, I think convenience motivates the decisions of most people, academics are no exception. The most interesting piece of data I’ve seen on this issue was survey results from textbook publishers. When they surveyed academics, far and away the primary reason why we don’t consider adopting new textbooks or instructional technology is due to convenience and the time it’d take to rework our courses.Report

ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

Convenience seems like an odd way of describing the decision not to change textbooks and to take the publisher’s word for it seems to neglect to consider their vested interest in high textbook turnover. I don’t typically use textbooks at all (I make up my own readers for all of my courses). This is, in large part, for ideological reasons having to do with textbook publishing. However, I don’t typically change my courses without very good reasons. This is because I put a lot of work into choosing the readings that I want students to do and devising lectures, assignments, and experiential learning ideas that work best for the course. I admit that I’m not perfect and I do tweak my courses just about every time I teach them but this is significantly different from choosing an entirely different textbook.

Most textbooks, at the introductory level anyway, are a wash (in the sense that they mostly include similar readings and most of them will do just fine). I can easily imagine that a professor wouldn’t think that a new textbook would be such a game-changer in terms of content that it would be worth changing an already refined course. This is less about convenience than about efficacy. Of course any course will go stale and require updating, perhaps even new textbooks, from time-to-time (unless…I suppose…one is teaching Ancient Greek philosophy using only primary sources…but even then…some translations might be better than others).

I also fail to see how this translates into the laptop issue. In my case, for example, I allow laptops in my course for the reasons that I stated earlier. None of those have to do with convenience except in the sense that a student’s convenience with, say, having my readings via pdf (all my readings are pdfs), are important to meeting my learning objectives.Report

Grad student
Grad student
6 years ago

“Daniel, I don’t know anyone who has thought seriously about good pedagogical practices who believes that the lecture/discussion model we see at most of our larger colleges and universities is the best way for instilling knowledge.”

I only have limited teaching experience, but I spend a great deal of time thinking about good pedagogical practices and reading the relevant literature. Although I am skeptical that there is a single best method, I am convinced that the lecture/discussion model is among the best ways of instilling knowledge.

Here’s why:

1) it would be really, really weird if listening to someone explain something you read and asking you questions about it wasn’t at least an adequate way of learning things. If the lecture/discussion model really weren’t adequate for instilling knowledge, we’d probably also have trouble with other everyday things that rely on the same basic skills, like reading maps, following directions, filling out forms, and so on. There might still be better ways of learning, but since we see the method effective in other domains, we have reason to think lectures aren’t useless relics no forward-thinking instructor would employ.

2) Research that shows lectures are ineffective in the sciences does not necessarly translate to the humanities. Flipped classrooms, for example, are often offered as alternatives to lectures based on Stanford and MIT’s succeess with them in science courses, but a flipped classroom in physics looks very different from one in philosophy. The students in a flipped physics course listen to a recorded lecture on their own, then work through what would have been homework problems in class. Admittely, my teaching experience is fairly limited, but that looks like how I run a philosophy class: they get the raw material from an article or book selection they read at home, then we work through questions about it in class with a combination of lecture and discussion.

I suppose I could make it more truely flipped by just opening the floor for discussion. Grad seminars can run this way, but for undergraduates still learning how to approach a text philosophically, the lecture portion is an important tool for modeling how to identify premises and conclusions, how to distinguish important claims from unimportant ones, how to interpret arguments charitably, etc.

3) Objections to the lecture/discussion model frequently define it in question-begging ways. Yes, standing in front of a class for an hour reciting a script in a droning voice is a bad way to teach, but that’s not what people think counts as a good lecture anyway. I may lecture on several topics in a given class, but I try to keep each lecture topic to 15 minutes or less, and I break them up by cold calling students to explain how one topic connects to another or to the previous night’s reading. This looks like a good example of the lecture/discussion model to me, but it doesn’t count because the lectures are short, or because the cold-calling makes them interactive, or because not every class is all lecture.

4) Alternatives to the lecture/discussion model aren’t clearly distinct from it. I’ve been told that what I do is “guide on the side” while lectures are “sage on the stage” but I don’t see the difference in terms of lecture and discussion. Maybe delivering short lectures or having small discussion groups is a better way of doing lecture and discussion, but delivering several short lectures or splitting the class into small discussion groups is still lecture and discussion. And while I don’t claim to be a sage, I’m not shy about the fact that I’m running the class rather than allowing students to explore the material organically.

5) Material constraints are not accounted for when comparing methods. One-on-one private tutors may be the best method of instilling knowledge given unlimited resources, but that’s not really what we’re talking about. Arguments over how we ought to teach are typically arguments over how we ought to teach given some assumptions about limited resources, particularly instructors’ time and number of students per instructor.

Lectures do well on this metric because they scale better than personalizde instruction methods like one-on-one tutoring. Discussion scales less well—one of the many problems with MOOCs—but is still possible in the large-but-not-massive courses at major universites and colleges in the US. Setting aside one class a week for moderated discussion on the week’s lecture can work well for a large class, though it takes some practice with moderating. It may yet be that personalized instruction is so much better at instilling knowledge that it outweighs that advantage, but it’s still a real advantage for the lecture/discussion model that isn’t easily dismissed.Report

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

Grad student said: “Alternatives to the lecture/discussion model aren’t clearly distinct from it. I’ve been told that what I do is “guide on the side” while lectures are “sage on the stage” but I don’t see the difference in terms of lecture and discussion. Maybe delivering short lectures or having small discussion groups is a better way of doing lecture and discussion, but delivering several short lectures or splitting the class into small discussion groups is still lecture and discussion. And while I don’t claim to be a sage, I’m not shy about the fact that I’m running the class rather than allowing students to explore the material organically.”

So, the alternatives to lecture and discussion you’re willing to consider are not distinct from lecture and discussion because you’ll only consider approaches that are variations on lecture and discussion, variations that leave you in control of all the information and/or wisdom in the classroom?

It might be worth your time to consider the merits of more radical alternatives, ones in which you indeed, as you say, guide the students as they learn “to explore the material organically.”

I’ll grant that implementing such an approach is not convenient, and not without risks – not least of which is the risk of letting go of some control over what happens in the classroom – but, then, anything worthwhile is difficult.

Speaking for myself, I have found more radical approaches to be far more satisfying, and far more engaging for students. I don’t (yet) have the data on the effectiveness of my approach; that’s a project for the near future.Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

No offense, but no grad students have spent a great deal of time thinking about anything. We’ve barely been around for a blind of the eye.Report

Grad student
Grad student
6 years ago

“So, the alternatives to lecture and discussion you’re willing to consider are not distinct from lecture and discussion because you’ll only consider approaches that are variations on lecture and discussion, variations that leave you in control of all the information and/or wisdom in the classroom?”

No, I’m willing to consider any alternatives. My claim was that what are usually offered as alternatives to the lecture/discussion model are only difference in degree, not kind. That is, the “alternatives” often aren’t really alternatives. They’re lecture and discussion done well and given a different name. I don’t know which more radical alternative you have in mind, but I’m interested in giving it a shot.

I think we have a real disagreement on the issue of control, though. I don’t think it would be honest to pretend that I don’t hold some authority over the students, or that I couldn’t impose some controls (like banning laptops or requiring certain readings) if I so decided. I could try something like unschooling and act as if I didn’t have or wouldn’t exercise that authority, but nothing leads me to think unschooling methods would work for large classes. (Unschooling advocates don’t think big classes are effective anyway.)

But more importantly than that, I think maintaining control of the discussion is necessary to ensure all students have a fair shot at participating. It’s old news that unmoderated discussion sessions come to be dominated by straight white men, and not necessarily because they’re trying to do it. And well-intentioned students of any class can come to dominate discussions just because no one else is willing to jump in. Letting this evolve organically means very few students participating, most of whom are straight white males.

I address this by starting discussions by cold calling the first few names on a randomized class and requiring that students wait until at least two other students have contributed before jumping back in. I redirect the discussion if they get too far off topic or if heated disagreements start turning ugly but for the most part I’m just managing the queue. If that counts as guiding students in an organically evolving discussion, great, but it’s still obvious that I’m running the discussion. If, say, one student wants to talk about why homosexuality is immoral during a class on Theory of Justice, I’m the one who’s going to step in and insist that we pursue a different topic. It wouldn’t be fair to rely on other students to redirect the discussion, and particularly unfair to the ones who aren’t straight.Report

Grad student
Grad student
6 years ago

Point taken. I should have said I’ve thought seriously about it. I don’t have nearly enough experience to claim any sort of expertise. I’m only trying to say that my opinion on lectures is a considered one. Maybe with more time and experience, I’ll see I’m way off base.Report

A Person
A Person
6 years ago

Anon Grad Student says: “No offense, but no grad students have spent a great deal of time thinking about anything.”

I wonder if Anon Grad Student has heard of this thing called a dissertation. But I digress.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

It may well have been a good policy decision, in terms of eleventh-century politics and economics, for King Canute to forbid the tide from coming in. But to debate it on those grounds would be to miss the larger point.

I take notes on a tablet, synchronise them automatically to the cloud, organise and shuffle them according to what’s helpful, embed files in them from time to time, and search them for relevant phrases when I can’t remember where they are. I haven’t used a pen-and-paper note-taking arrangement in five years. Over the last ten years, my students – undergrad and graduate – increasingly seem to be moving the same way. Schools are increasingly requiring students to have and use laptops or iPads in class. Oxford, though it still requires students to handwrite their final exams, is starting to discuss changing that policy because students do so little handwritten work otherwise that their handwriting is too poor. Whatever its pedagogical merits, in (say) ten years I don’t think it’s going to be viable to enforce note-taking by ink on dead tree.Report

Raghuveer Parthasarathy
6 years ago

I’m surprised by this. I’ve banned laptops in class (typically general-education science classes for non-science-major undergraduates) for several years now, and gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback. (I was quite surprised by this the first time I did it.) I explain the rationale to students, and also cite the research on distraction noted above. I think a lot of students are well aware that laptops are, in general, a distraction, and appreciate efforts to make classes more interactive.Report

Alexander Maxwell
Alexander Maxwell
6 years ago

I read that study suggesting that laptops distract not only the laptop user but students sitting nearby, and decided to create a laptop-free zone: laptop users have to sit on the left. I showed the results of the study, summarized that, statistically, laptop users were going to do more poorly in the course than non-users, said that the students were adults and could make their own decisions, but explained it was my responsibility to protect non-users against distractions. One laptop user had a favourite seat on the wrong side of the class, so she grumbled, but otherwise it was fine. It so happened that the keenest students in the course were laptop users, and they gloated when they did well, boasting that they had beaten the odds. I thought it was a good balance, though, between respecting student choices and being skeptical of classroom laptops.Report

Thom Brooks
6 years ago

Perhaps law schools are very different in the UK. About all my students bring laptops to class – and I became used to it very quickly. I think it works well and I’ve had no problems.Report

Andrew Moon
6 years ago

This discussion has been helpful because I really care about teaching well, and having a good electronics policy has been difficult for me.
The MAIN argument I see for banning laptops/phones is that they distract others, not that they hurt the users. So, in line with what others have said, why not just let the back row be technology row, where they cannot distract nontech-users? I haven’t seen any comments yet that show that this wouldn’t be a good compromise.
I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m considering it for the future.Report

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

By the time I walked into the classroom, yesterday, for the start of the new term, I’d worked out a way of discussing electronic devices that has some nuance to it. This thread has been very helpful in pushing me toward a more pragmatist take on the matter.

I told my students they should bring an internet-capable device with them to class for use as a resource in group work, but that we would talk about where to look online for resources better than Google or Wikipedia. I also told them we would try out and reflect on various ways of using electronic devices in collaborative work.

But then I told them there might be some activities or exercises for which I will ask them to turn off and stow their electronics, but that I would have a clear pedagogical purpose in doing so. For example, I might want to see what they make of a situation or how they address a problem using only the resources of their own minds and bodies, and maybe a paper book.

In each of my classes I then set them to work on an activity in which I asked them to set aside their computers, tablets and phones for at least part of the time.

They seemed to be on board with that.

(I’ve written a bit more about this here: http://bit.ly/13YcD4f )Report