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Are lectures losing it? Irrelevant and unengaging talks are sapping my productivity.

By in Features

The Martlet (University of Victoria)

Fact: student newspapers make excellent drool protectors.
VICTORIA (CUP) — It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday and I’m sitting in my afternoon writing lecture. The professor has been reviewing Powerpoint slides for the past half-hour and my attention has inevitably slipped away from the content of the class. In one open window of my laptop, I’m brewing ideas for the paper due at the end of this week; in another, I’m editing photos for a commercial photo shoot I did over the weekend. In my busy life, this is the perfect opportunity to get some work done. I half-listen to the lecture, perking up when a question is asked.

Lots of the chairs in front of me are empty, despite the couple of waitlisted students at the beginning of the term who couldn’t get in. Obviously the usual number of people are skipping class today. Maybe they’re sick, maybe they’re working a part-time job or doing something important; hell, maybe they just slept in. In front of me, I see a student on Facebook, another writing in her journal, another texting on his phone. The class is only about twenty-five people, and I’ve had courses with many of them before; they’re all strong writers, and I’m confident they’ll all pass this course with at least a B+. It’s not that the assignments are too easy; on the contrary, we’ll all spend some sleepless nights grinding away at them. So why aren’t so many of us here, physically or otherwise?

Facebook vs. the faculty

From the ivory towers of university to elementary school, technology is exploding in classrooms, and the way people learn in the information age is turning out to be much different than in years past. In my three years as an arts student at the University of Victoria, I’ve watched the university try hard to adapt to the changing needs of students, and they should be commended for their efforts: high-speed Internet, power plugs near desks, printing labs and computer stations in the library among the steps they’ve taken. But in light of some of the issues brought up by technology use and the change in learning styles, UVic and many other schools have begun to institute laptop bans and strict attendance policies.

“The use of cell phones, laptops … except for the purpose of note-taking … is considered disruptive and may lead to discipline from the instructor or the Department Chair,” reads a portion of the UVic department of writing policies. “Laptop users should sit in the front of the room for lectures and may be required to refrain from computer use during workshops.”

This is just not the way to deal with the problem.

In the fourth grade, I was diagnosed with Written Output Disorder, a condition that made it extremely frustrating for me to hand-write assignments and tests in classes. I would often become irritable or lose my composure when I had to produce written work, despite my oral skills and ability to comprehend the subject. My parents got a written recommendation from a child psychiatrist that I take typing lessons and be allowed to use a laptop in school, and since then I’ve taken a laptop to class every day for my 12 consecutive years as a student. Though I’ve mostly overcome my output frustrations as I’ve grown, laptops have always been an integral part of my learning experience. Laptops are such a good tool for recording information, communicating, working and editing that it’s practically unheard of for a student to not own one, particularly one in the writing department.

Of course, many professors will tell you that they hate having laptops in their classes, that laptops are disruptive, that students are always on Facebook or surfing the web and that the downsides outweigh the potential benefits. Many times at UVic (and back in high school as well) I’ve had professors ask me to close my laptop, or to sit in the front of the class, which I find embarrassing and unnecessary. If I sit in the front row, isn’t my screen more distracting to others than if I sit in the back? Though a lot of professors have relaxed their rules on laptops after I speak with them in office hours, and the departmental policy doesn’t always stand, it reflects a position on behalf of the faculty.

I have to be be honest, though. If it’s a lecture course, a lot of the time I am on Facebook, or I’m working or doing something else productive. And a lot of the other people in my courses do the same. It’s part of how we’re used to using computers: we take in information from several different sources at once and multi-task constantly. We are habituated to the practice of using a computer for several different things at once, and often the content of a lecture course can take a backseat as we run triage on our time.

“Young people increasingly live and work in their technology. Like it or not, they are embedded in it,” says Stephen Hume, one of the writing professors at UVic and a columnist for the Vancouver Sun. “Their artistic entertainment, their work, their research information, their social networking, their classroom work, their communications all reside in the electronic matrix.”

There have been many studies showing a link between the use of laptops in class and students’ reduced capacity to intake information and memorize it, and this has lead to support from faculties and profs for forbidding the use of computers in classes. Last year, for example, a McGill political science professor named Arash Abizadeh took advantage of a new academic policy and banned all laptops and mobile communication devices from courses he taught. But this is a short-sighted attempt to address the issue.

For one thing, it’s ridiculous to outlaw a tool that most students are going to spend their entire lives engaging with. As Hume puts it, “telling students they can’t open the laptop on which they’ve received their assignment, stored their research and written the essay seems about as wise as telling students then can bring textbooks to class but aren’t permitted to open them.”

Banning laptops also runs into the issue of how much universities should be policing their paying student customers. If I want to use class time to work on other things or even just not to pay attention, who cares, as long as I’m not disrupting anyone else? If I sit in the back and don’t make too much noise, I’m the only person missing out.

In second year, I took a music class that focused on computing in music and how digital recording worked. It was very intensive; grasping the key concepts meant asking a lot of questions in class and taking exhaustive notes: and if I had tried to pass by simply cramming before the exams, I would have almost certainly failed. There was a surprising amount of math and physics involved that I had to practise, and as it was, I scraped by with a B. It was a demonstration of a lecture course that really required me to use my laptop to take notes in order to keep up, and one in which I simply didn’t have time to tab over to my web browser during class.

Many people in other faculties, such as Engineering or Science, find that many of their classes are similar; note-taking is critical and the material being memorized is directly relevant to being able to work in the field. That said, I didn’t retain much of what I laboured to memorize for the exams, and I got a lot more value from the hands-on recording techniques class that the lecture class was a prerequisite for; but I’ll get back to that. The point is that in a class where my laptop was truly necessary, I wouldn’t have been able to get by without it.

And the flip side of that is the only other time I really use my laptop is when I’m not engaging with the lecture at all. If the course material isn’t interesting, isn’t relevant to my GPA, and isn’t capturing me, then I’m getting a pretty poor return on my tuition investment. And of course I’m going to keep going to class and signing up for these lectures, just like everyone else; we all know you pretty much need a bachelor’s degree to find work anywhere in the white-collar world. But doesn’t the university have a greater responsibility than that?

Aimless attendance

In second year, I registered for an Economics class as an elective for my Creative Writing program. The description in the course calendar sounded really great; game theory, policy intervention, social choice … I was really looking forward to it as I walked into the 200-person lecture hall and found a seat with a plug for my laptop. I’d gotten lucky: the professor was a pretty good lecturer, not a boring voice at all, and the content was actually pretty interesting.

On the other hand, it was on Tuesday nights. That year, I was spending Tuesday evenings running around shooting last-minute photos for the newspaper and my first-year-out-of-res shoestring food budget meant that Tuesday night free Church Dinner at Emmanuel Baptist was a near must. The reality of it was that I missed nearly all of the classes that semester. With a huge class size and no attendance policy, nobody noticed me gone, and the times I did sit in I heard no discussion or real reason to stay. After all, the notes were all posted online.

Come midterms and the final exam, I would cram the night before by printing out old versions of the exams and rewriting all the Powerpoint notes by hand to burn them in my memory. I walked into each exam feeling like I had them cold, and I did — I passed the course with an A average. And I wasn’t the only one, either; lots of my classmates did the same thing.

I wouldn’t say the class was easy. My math skills have always been weak, and memorizing the specific terminology and logical processes for each test was quite difficult. I ended up answering over 250 review questions before I’d even taken the final exam. But as I’ve gone through more time in university, this class and my bizarre experience have stayed with me. How was I able to skip nearly every lecture and not only pass, but get an A? How can the university justify making some poor professor stand up there and be ignored for four whole months? What does that say about lecture courses in general?

Absenteeism is almost the same deal as laptops. It’s fair to say that skipping class is disrespectful to professors, just like not paying attention is, but from my experience, most people only cut class if they have a fairly legitimate reason. A lot of us have busy lives, and there are lots of resources for us to catch up on missed notes. Cracking down on absenteeism only punishes students for those times when their bus is late, or their partner dumps them, or they have an important final for another course.

According to the UVic Department of Writing policies, “Students may miss up to two classes in a single term, including 200-level workshops. A subsequent absence necessitates course withdrawal, or in the event that it is too late to withdraw, the student can expect a failing grade. This is a change from previous years, where students could miss a certain percentage of classes without consequence.”

“Attendance is prescribed by the writing department,” says Hume. “Students know the rules. As adults, I expect students to abide by them. I don’t take formal attendance because I think it’s demeaning. This isn’t elementary school. I’m not your authoritarian Dad. I know my students by name and I know who’s there and who’s not and how often they are away. Everybody has missed an occasional day for illness, or because real life has intruded into their schedule.”

One of the issues is that students don’t bother coming to class if they feel like nobody cares whether they do. In my time at UVic, I’ve skipped countless lecture courses, but very, very few workshops or tutorials.

“The smaller the class, the less I skipped,” says Bryce Bladon, a recent graduate of UVic’s writing department. “I found that I placed substantially more value on classes where my attendance affected the learning of others or where my absence would be noticeable to the professor or lecturer. When my presence was valued, I valued my attendance.”

At the end of the day, banning laptops and making penalties higher for skipping class is a band-aid on the problem of people not giving a shit about their courses. I can’t imagine a professor preferring people be forced to pay attention than genuinely want to learn in a class. Students are paying consumers of the university’s product, and moreover, finishing high school and entering university is an important transition in responsibility. Enforcing rules on students takes responsibility away from them and infantilizes them, and that in turn encourages them to care even less.

“I take the view that my task is to lead students to water, not force them to drink it,” says Hume. “If they choose not to pay attention or participate actively in the class, then they are robbing themselves, not me or the university. So after 19 years of teaching these workshops, I’m now firmly of the ‘less is more’ school of thought when it comes to the instructor’s control of the process.”

Hume also reports “a consistently higher performance standard” from his students. “The output is better and the quality of work is much better and their sense of communal obligation to one another is much higher.” I feel as though every hands-on course I’ve taken was worth at least twice as much as any other lecture I attended. Of course, it’s not possible for every class to have that element, but it’s important for professors to keep in mind that the more they engage students the less they have to deal with problems like disrespect, absenteeism and lack of attention.

So what’s a university to do, confronted by this problem? You can’t force students to listen up, and they’re so bored in some lectures that they’re actively doing other work. It’s a waste of students’ time and a waste of professors’ time teaching to a silent room.

How do we fix this?

Photo: rofltosh/Flickr

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