Tips from Tanya: Some points for students about technology in the classroom

I wrote this for my students (after Tamara Kelly and I facilitated a session on student devices in the classroom at the Western Conference on Science Education 2015) and am sharing it here, in hopes it may be of interest/use to others! Please note that my classroom policies about device use are specific to the courses I currently teach.

Almost everyone has a smartphone, laptop, tablet, or combination of these devices with them during their waking hours (and beyond, in some cases). There is huge potential for distraction using these devices – which is fine if you’re waiting in a long, boring line or on the bus, but can be problematic in the classroom*.

While a few profs ban these devices in their classes, I’m taking a different approach. In much of the world, including most work-places, these devices aren’t banned, and people are expected to be able to manage work/life and various distractions. That being said, I can understand why some instructors have different policies for their own classes.

Some of our in-class activities will make use of online resources, so I’ll encourage you to use them, if you wish to do so.  I’ll be using LectureTools, which allows me to ask you questions that you can answer on your device … and for you to ask me questions in the system (without raising your hand).

If you don’t want to use a device in our class, that’s fine! One way to avoid distraction is to keep these devices out of sight (and hearing), and I’m happy to support those who take this approach. There will be alternative activities for students who don’t use the in-class system.

If you do want to use your device(s) in class, there are some things to be aware of:

  • There have been studies that have shown “multi-tasking” in class is detrimental to learning. (Actually, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests humans can’t really multi-task … or, at least, can’t multi-task well!) If you’re trying to go back and forth between course-related stuff and other websites (or assignments for other courses, etc.), this will affect how well you’re learning/working.
  • Notifications (e.g., beeps/vibrations for new emails, text messages, etc.) are highly distracting, and feed into “reward systems” in the brain that can reinforce behaviours like frequently checking your phone, Facebook, etc. (You know that uncomfortable feeling that makes you check your phone/email? Your brain gets a dopamine hit when you give into that urge … and makes it more likely to continue the behaviour leading to the reward.) Consider turning off these notifications, at least during class and other times when you want to be able to focus uninterrupted. (Some people have found turning off notifications altogether has helped them not only focus, but reduced their stress levels!)
  • Online videos are highly distracting in class to students nearby. (They’re obviously distracting to the person with the device, but they chose to be distracted!) If you really have to watch video in class, please make sure the sound is off (or you’re wearing headphones), and sit somewhere out of sight of others (e.g., back corner of room).
  • Note-taking on computers (vs. by hand) is associated with lower-quality learning/test scores. Results from some recent studies (admittedly under some very specific conditions) have supported the idea that writing notes by hand on paper is superior to taking notes on the computer. There are a number of hypotheses about this, but many experts agree that taking notes by hand involves more thinking about what’s important and worth writing down (as you can’t transcribe every word spoken by the professor). On the computer, it is tempting to try to record everything verbatim, with the brain not processing much of the information. Interestingly, one study found that an activity akin to live-tweeting course content was associated with learning – perhaps the effort required to distill information into 140 character tweets is similar to the type of cognition involved in making good hand-written notes! If you take notes by computer (Lecture Tools includes the functionality to record notes for each slide), develop the habit of summarizing important points, and/or noting things you want to look up outside of class (and why). It’s probably helpful to review your notes regularly, summarizing and integrating material.

Have other suggestions or tips? Let me know!

* Or while you’re trying to study at home, the library … or, for that matter, a hot date!


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4 Comments on “Tips from Tanya: Some points for students about technology in the classroom”

  1. This is great stuff–thanks so much for posting! I wonder if you would mind if I use many of your ideas here in my own syllabus, possibly even with some of the same wording–with attribution, of course?

  2. […] for students about technology in the classroom. Here are some non-tech-phobic thoughts about how students might consider how they use technology in the classroom to help themselves learn, or do do well in class (which is not the same thing of […]

  3. Todd Nickle says:

    Excellent consolidation of the different parts of research. Students using iOS can activate their “Do Not Disturb” settings quite easily to mute incoming info to avoid activating those reward centres!

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