What to do about teaching and the internet?
April 15, 2010 9:26 AM   Subscribe

How do I keep my students off the internet during lecture?

Today, in the class I TA - I had about 5 students on facebook, another 2 texting, a bunch checking their email, 1 playing tetris, 1 reading the sports, and another reading the nytimes. It drove me mad. One on facebook was even looking at pictures of girls in their bras. After class, one student had the nerve to tell me he should be allowed to be on the internet in class because he takes good notes and has an A in the class (if he was in my section, trust me - he would no longer have an A).

All of this frustration (and I teach at an Ivy League school) - got me thinking, when I'm the head instructor - what can I do? Our university doesn't have the option to turn off the internet. Do I just ban laptops? Is there anything else I can do?
posted by quodlibet to Education (118 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Be engaging. I only surfed in boring classes, although occasionally I would wikipedia in the interesting ones.
posted by edbles at 9:29 AM on April 15, 2010 [8 favorites]

- Give an interesting lecture.

- Call on students involuntarily in a way that presumes they've been paying attention.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:30 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I should add this is at Brown - where students don't have any requirements because of an open curriculum. So these students are taking it because they want to - and a majority of them choose the class because the professor is one of the MOST engaging profs I know.
posted by quodlibet at 9:31 AM on April 15, 2010

Best answer: Can you tell them they're forbidden to use their laptops for anything but taking notes in your class, and if you catch them doing otherwise you will drop their grade by a letter? Not sure if a TA has that kind of power.

Give an interesting lecture

I don't necessarily think that this is the issue. I remember from law school that there seem to be some people for whom the internet is an addiction, and there is really not much you can say to get their attention.
posted by amro at 9:32 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

1. Factor some kind of participation points into their grade. Say if they're not actively watching the lecture, they don't get the points. Make this like 5-10% of their grade.

2. Make it a class rule that laptops are to be closed during lecture. Call students out on it. If there are laptops open at the start of lecture, remind them that they're not allowed and ask them to close it. Wait to lecture until all laptops are closed. Cross arms and stare at students who aren't following directions.
posted by royalsong at 9:32 AM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Is class participation part of their grade? (It sure was in every class I was in that was fewer than 30 people, which was most of them.) If it is, remind them of this.

They're not necessarily surfing because they're bored. They're surfing because they can. I had some fairly dull professors when I was in college, and since it was before the internets, we just sucked it up and doodled. And got embarrassed when we were called on to answer a question and hadn't been paying attention.
posted by rtha at 9:33 AM on April 15, 2010

If they're learning, and they're not disruptive, what's the problem?
posted by Xany at 9:34 AM on April 15, 2010 [19 favorites]

Don't ban laptops. I went to an Ivy and I only surfed the web in classes I found easy or not engaging. Often I would use the internet to supplement the lecture or fact check the professor.

In college you have to make your own decisions. If students want to piss away their parent's tuition dollars looking at their classmates bikini photos on facebook, well, that's their choice. Hopefully the grading scheme in the class is sufficient to award grades that reflect these students choices.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:35 AM on April 15, 2010 [40 favorites]

How do I keep my students off the internet during lecture?

Give a lecture that's worth listening to. It's very simple, but hard.

if he was in my section, trust me - he would no longer have an A

Huh? Isn't it kind of a problem if the grading across the sections is that inconsistent?
posted by Jahaza at 9:37 AM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Banning laptops was the most common solution at my law school. Giving an engaging lecture can help, but suggesting that people are only using the internet because their bored is wrong. I've used the internet/slept/daydreamed through plenty of very interesting lectures. Is it a participation/discussion based class? If so, cold calling can do wonders to make sure students are paying attention, although it has the downside of making class less enjoyable for them.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:37 AM on April 15, 2010

You might consider changing your outlook. You can ban laptops or phones or books or whatever, but you are never going to be able to force your students to pay attention to you. You are not teaching to be a disciplinarian at the college level--you are teaching to impart knowledge to those willing to receive it. Is this really a battle you want to waste your time on?
posted by almostmanda at 9:38 AM on April 15, 2010 [13 favorites]

I did four years of undergrad at a small, high-quality liberal arts university and am now a PhD student/TA at a much, much larger university.

My experience has indicated to me that size matters. Students are all over laptops, texting, and the 'net in their large lectures. However, both in my own undergrad classes (10-25 people) and the small sections that I lead (7-35 people) nobody touches the 'net, and texting is quickly curtailed by a withering look or the occasional "put the damn phone away" comment.

So, I'm thinking, short of banning laptops, phones, other paper, etc. entirely in big sections, it's pretty much hopeless. Some quantity of students might listen if you chastise the group, and some more yet if you pick them out as an individual and call them out, but all in all I wouldn't expect ever to be able to get students to be wholly undistracted in bigger sections.

In smaller sections where you contact is more immediate, by contrast, it's really very easy. Establish standards early on, and, importantly, actually enforce them when somebody tries to push it, and people will pretty much behave.
posted by Rallon at 9:38 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I had this problem in a 150-person lecture, I began to give two-minute quizzes on the lecture material at the end of each class. Problem solved.
posted by philokalia at 9:38 AM on April 15, 2010 [18 favorites]

Best answer: Wait, could you include content in the lectures that isn't in any of the written materials, and let the students know they'll be tested on it? And don't put PowerPoint slides from these lectures online.

I strongly recommend not banning laptops, since you'd be punishing students who use them as an effective note-taking device. In fact, when I had to write notes by hand (in college), it made me pay attention to the professor much less than when I took notes on a laptop (in law school), since I write so much slower by hand. No laptop means I'll be staring off into space rather than engaging with the lecture through fast note-taking.

I like amro's idea -- once you're actually "the head instructor," as you said -- of saying they're forbidden from using their laptops for surfing the web. This could work if you can have TAs periodically looking over their shoulders and taking note of who's breaking the rule (and then report this info to you). I've never heard of anyone doing this, and it might be unorthodox, but I don't see why it wouldn't work.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:39 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You need to find the path of least resistance (so you can't ban laptops), avoid confrontation (don't focus on individual students), and appeal to their better nature (explain that surfing the internet during class is, basically, rude).

Since I have had anger management issues in the past, I myself have had to put a lot of work into developing positive classroom management activities in order to avoid all-out war in the classroom.

So, what I would do is to outline (very briefly) you expectations and your *needs*:

"I've noticed in many of my classes that people are surfing the internet during lectures, etc. While it's rude, I also *need* to have your full attention. Can I get you guys to stop surfing the internet during class?"

You also have to figure out a way to save face, because your students are going to continue to use the internet. Behaviours can only be changed incrementally:

"I know it's going to be hard, and it may take time. At the same time, I think that if you are going to come to class, you should not be checking out Facebook or playing online games. We're here to study right?"

I wouldn't allow it to turn into a discussion. If the students decide to argue with you, tell them right up front: "I'm happy to discuss this, but only for about 2 minutes. Then we need to move on."

If they're still arguing in 2 minutes, set up a time outside of class to discuss.

Finally, keep track of what people are surfing for on the internet. At the end of class, say: "I saw one person looking at girls in the bras on Facebook, somebody else playing Tetris, and someone else playing sports. Can we not do that sort of thing in class?"

Once you fire the initial shot off their bow, don't bring it up every class, even if some people are using the internet. Although you'll have to grit your teeth, you'll avoid looking like a nag.

However, I think Facebook and girls and bras goes over the line. If you see someone looking at objectionable content, call out the entire class at the end of class.

[but don't single out a student unless you're in a strong political position, which you are not]

"I saw someone looking at girls in their bras on Facebook. This is unacceptable. Do not do that again."

And then leave the class.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:40 AM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'd echo with the other people that I'm confused about what the problem is. If he takes good notes and has an A in the class... what is the downside to him being on the internet/doing other things too? Is it just a lack of respect thing? What's the actual ISSUE here?
posted by brainmouse at 9:42 AM on April 15, 2010 [7 favorites]

How do I keep my students off the internet during lecture?

Make the information in lecture necessary to getting a decent grade in the class.

If people are on the 'net and still getting good grades, there are two possibilities (discouting cheating, of course):

1)They're surfing the net, but still paying attention. In this case, what's the problem?

2) They're learning the material even without listening to your lecture. In this case, your lecture is the problem: it's redudant and can be replaced with the texts.

If your lecture, however, is actually instruction, those who want to learn will pay attention. If your lecture is quality, this problem will sort itself out.

one student had the nerve to tell me he should be allowed to be on the internet in class because he takes good notes and has an A in the class (if he was in my section, trust me - he would no longer have an A).

...because you'd punish him for looking at the internet in your class, or because he doesn't actually do A-level work on graded assignments?
posted by spaltavian at 9:46 AM on April 15, 2010 [7 favorites]

Tell them being you don't allow distractions and disrespectful behavior and that they shouldn't bother coming to class if all they do it surf the web. In your grading policy, note that 3 unexcused absences from class warrant a 10% deduction on their next exam.
posted by anniecat at 9:48 AM on April 15, 2010

Response by poster: The problem of the student being online is a matter of respect for the learning environment I believe. The seats are arranged in this class to where you can see a few rows ahead of you, plus the 5 or six people on your row. It can be distracting to others, and I just find it overall rude.

I object a bit to the make lecture interesting comments - naturally some material is more dense/tougher than others and some people are going to be more into it than others. I will say that we were discussing current events surrounding immigration when all this happened. While I plan on doing my best to impart it to students in an interesting and accessible way - I think students should have an obligation on their end to be engaged as well. It is not that the professor should be a monkey dancing on stage for the pleasure of the students.

I also take notes now on my computer - but I went to college and did notes all by hand and did just fine. But I understand how laptops can be a benefit - that's why I'd like to find other options than just banning them.
posted by quodlibet at 9:48 AM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There are two ways to look at this:

1. Xany's approach -- even if they are not learning, they have paid for the class, you get your paycheck regardless of whether they pass or not. They are adults, you are not a truant officer. They are welcome to pay for a very expensive course and not "receive" it.

2. Be a hardass about this. I don't like option 1 because I think these students are poison to a class. Students who are "on the fence" about being engaged and participating slip to the wrong side when they see other students doing this. At my university, if you clearly set out classroom behavior expectations in your syllabus, you can report the students to the administration as a "classroom discipline" problem. This stays on their academic record and might cause them serious problems if they want to go to medical or law school. I have not done this yet, but, after a really bad "texting" semester, I am going to try the strategy next year. No laptops, no phones, nothing, unless they can provide me with documentation from the disabilities office that they must use it.

Now, as you are a TA, you would need to talk to the professor about how far s/he is willing for you to go to maintain discipline. You would also need to check the university manual to see what your options are. Even if you cannot "black mark" disruptive students, you can probably eject them from the classroom. But you would really want your professor's support, or things could go badly for you.

If you want to discuss this further, feel free to memail -- I do a lot of work on classroom strategy.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:49 AM on April 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

Honestly, I find it incredibly rude that they are surfing the web during class. It's just plain rude. It's like coming to class and reading US Weekly right out in front while the professor is lecturing. And their rudeness is distracting you from doing your job.

Maybe you should assign everyone a ten minute presentation and then when the first guy goes up, start reading an US Weekly and laughing and giggling.
posted by anniecat at 9:51 AM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

In a straight on fourty minute plus lecture, you know there are going to be parts that are dull and not important to your grade. So you keep the webpage open to something else during a lull, and next thing you know you're not paying any attention to the lecture, even if it is back to being interesting. Before long this is a set habit, you just expect the class to follow a pattern where you can get away with checking facebook frequently, and then frequently turns into constantly.

I love classes that rotate between teaching modes, such as lecture -> worked example -> discussion -> lecture -> video and so on. You don't need to announce them beforehand or have any sort of specific constraints. Even boring material gets covered, but not in a format that encourages you to tune it out.
posted by nowoutside at 9:56 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I audited a class last semester, in the professor's first lecture, he asked people not to use laptops for anything other than note-taking because it was distracting to other students. It seemed to have mostly worked, but I'm sure it helped that he was an engaging speaker.

(He also recommended paper & pen note-taking as having advantages over laptops for absorbing the material, a point I imagine the undergrads heard as "I'm old-old-old-oldety-old-old-old." I agree with him, but, then, I'm old-old-old&c.)
posted by Zed at 9:57 AM on April 15, 2010

Maybe you should assign everyone a ten minute presentation and then when the first guy goes up, start reading an US Weekly and laughing and giggling.

Great idea, but at least let the student in on your "lesson," otherwise that'd be pretty mean.
posted by puritycontrol at 9:59 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

They are adults.
They're paying for the class.
They're wasting their own time[1].

Just teach around it and engage the students who want to be engaged.
The students who care will rapidly realize that you are only paying attention to those who pay attention to you and will adjust their behaviour accordingly.
Those who don't care won't even notice you've stopped teaching to them.

To reinforce this, you can make the first 3 or 4 rows a "laptop free zone". That way the slackers can safely slack outside of your immediate vicinity and you don't need to get so worked up about it.

Bonus: You turn an impersonal 150 person lecture into a small-group discussion for those who want to fully participate.

[1] Presuming, of course, they aren't bothering the folks next to them with games/pr0n./whatever, in which case you just handle it like you would any other student causing a distraction.
posted by madajb at 9:59 AM on April 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

Sorry, but everyone who says "make it interesting and engaging" is right.

You rankle at this suggestion because you're confusing INTERESTING with IMPORTANT. Everything you teach is important, even if it is dry. But even the driest material can be taught in a way that is engaging and interesting.

It sounds like your classroom currently requires very passive participation if they feel comfortable zoning out like that. You need to make it WAY more active. Law school provided some good and bad examples of this. Often professors would give us days that we were "on call" - when we should expect to be called on to discuss the subject at hand. Anything was fair game and you HAD to be prepared for it. You also had to be engaged in the *dialogue* that was happening even when you weren't a part of it, because you might be expected to pick it up at a moments notice and keep going.

Ultimately, the "on call" (or its cousin, the "round robin" method of calling on everyone in class in order) is counter productive since it teaches you that you need only be prepared if there is a good chance you will be called on. The traditional method - that everyone is on call at all times - is better for forcing people to be engaged with the lesson. Again, you'll want to make sure that you call on enough students in each class that they know with substantial certainty that they will probably be called on in any given class.

tl;dr version: Your classroom is too passive. Make it more active and demand more interaction out of your students.
posted by greekphilosophy at 10:03 AM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As a college professor who faces this problem daily, I'd like to send out a big "up yours" to the "make the lectures more interesting" crowd. Not only is it not an answer to the question posed, but it's as rude as texting in class, and it certainly makes a hell of a lot of unfounded assumptions about the quality of the poster's teaching.

Students being online/wired 24/7 is a MAJOR issue in academia right now. I have STRICT no-texting, no-surfing rules in my classes, and it's in the syllabus, and I remind the students that they will be penalized. It doesn't fucking matter. These kids are NEVER, EVER apart from some sort of internet-enabled device, and, as others here have remarked, they have, for the msot part, not yet developed the sense of courtesy and, above all, respect that would encourage them to pay some attention to the classes that they are, indeed, paying a lot of money for.

It is not possible to ban laptops. Many very good students use them for note-taking, as they should, and as I encourage them to. As well, my university has spent a lot of money on creating wired/wifi classrooms, as these are important devices for teaching and learning. It is not my place to ban laptops.

I CAN call out students on what looks to me (from the front of the room) to be web-surfing. I CAN appeal to their sense of respect, though, believe me, this doesn't hold much weight. (I actually had to physically remove one young woman's Blackberry this semester.) I CAN lower their class-participation grade based on this disrespectful behavior, but this penalty doesn't show up until the semester is over.

It is, as I say, a VERY difficult issue right now. So far the best suggestion is the pop-quiz solution, but, honestly, pop-quizzes are a huge pain in the ass: not just for the students, but for my grading load; as well, it makes the students dislike you and it, ironically, suggests a certain disrespect of them on my part.

So I'm eager to see where this discussion goes. I don't think there's a foolproof solution, at least not yet suggested here. Thanks for asking this question.
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:04 AM on April 15, 2010 [43 favorites]

I have had students who basically had to show up to class for a requirement. Yeah, email, porn, etc. I wouldn't mind some private doodling, but damn, nudging your buddies and pointing out whatever it is you have found is distracting for me and for the rest of the class. I believe that part of the problem is that common manners have yet to catch up to technological developments.

I have no idea of the size of your lecture hall, the density of classes attended within that building, and so forth, but perhaps, instead of turning off the Internet, you could arrange for the nearest wireless access point to be shut off at certain times. Overlapping coverage might complicate matters some. Otherwise, you're left making a pitch for wireless-jamming paint on the walls. An active wireless jammer, though satisfying, would be illegal.

Perhaps you could petition the university for the creation of a few Internet-free zones/lecture halls. The uptake of the idea amongst your fellow faculty might be surprising.
posted by adipocere at 10:05 AM on April 15, 2010

Best answer: This is a major discussion at my university right now, to the extent in a recent hiring process we asked candidates what their policies would be/were about laptops in the classroom. (kind of a take their temperature question)

What I did this semester was - I told them on the first day that I knew some of them would be taking notes on their laptops and that that was fine with me. But that I also knew some of them would be surfing, and that was also fine with me -- but potentially distracting to the other students. So I said the rule was, anyone using a laptop had to sit around the perimeter of the classroom - sides or back - so that their screen was not in the field of view of anyone else. I said the screen in a row in front could be a problem for a lot of people trying to pay attention and so this was a matter for the common good, not against "right to surf".

I framed it as part of the talk about no texting, turn your cells off, etc.

They seemed to accept this just fine and I only had to mention it one more time the whole semester. Of course I am such an engaging lecturer that they can barely rip their eyes away from me long enough to twitter their mental orgasm, so YMMV.
posted by Rumple at 10:07 AM on April 15, 2010 [32 favorites]

Oh yeah, and I know this is obvious but: if you aren't typing, you aren't taking notes. So it is pretty easy to tell from the front who is doing what.
posted by Rumple at 10:08 AM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

As a college professor who faces this problem daily, I'd like to send out a big "up yours" to the "make the lectures more interesting" crowd. Not only is it not an answer to the question posed, but it's as rude as texting in class, and it certainly makes a hell of a lot of unfounded assumptions about the quality of the poster's teaching.


Just so you know, I got the "make lectures more interesting" suggestion from a relative of mine who's -- guess what? a law professor.

It's kind of common sense.

Also, saying "up yours" and then criticizing other people for being "rude" in the same paragraph is a bit incongruous.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:10 AM on April 15, 2010 [14 favorites]

And it is "an answer to the question posed." You just don't agree with the answer.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:11 AM on April 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

The issue with using your laptop for anything other than taking notes is that you are not fully engaged. This isn't a problem unique to universities. This problem runs rampant in the corporate world as well. There is an excellent podcast on this very topic.

As noted above, you need to penalize people for not being engaged. That can be through calling them out in a lecture or giving a quiz at the end of the lecture.

It does also have to do with respect but more importantly maturity. How would that student feel if he came to you during office hours for some help and you spent half of the time typing an email to a colleague? The argument that "I can surf the internet and still ace your class" demonstrates that the kid might be smart but his mind is immature.
posted by jasondigitized at 10:12 AM on April 15, 2010

As a current grad student I only feel compelled to surf when I feel like the lecture is a waste of my time. Some of my classes feel like flushing $1,500 down the toilet! And in other classes I don't feel the need to do something else. Quizzes are a fair idea, but they might make students hate you instead of genuinely wanting to pay attention. In my program there are no tests and the papers are graded very generously, so I just don't feel the need to pay much attention or try most of the time. I learn more at my internship and my job than I do in class. I'm going to class to learn how to do a job I've been doing for 2 years. Our prof makes zero effort to engage us or incorporate feedback.
posted by ShadePlant at 10:12 AM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

In the class I'm taking now at community college, almost no one uses laptops, but people do try to text.

The teacher stated very clearly in his syllabus, and verbally on the first day, that texting (and sleeping) was not allowed. When he sees someone texting, he calls them out at lenght. Not in a mean way, he actually has this long routine about how he's an old man and we should take pity on him etc, but it calls so much attention to the offender that it seems to be a more or less effective deterent.

I think if you state your rules clearly on the first day and in the syllabus, explain that it's an issue of respect for you, and then simply and publicly ask people to stop when you see it happening, it will mostly stop.
posted by serazin at 10:12 AM on April 15, 2010

After class, one student had the nerve to tell me he should be allowed to be on the internet in class because he takes good notes and has an A in the class

He makes a good point. People learn differently, and professors who take draconian measures to force everybody to sit straight in their chairs with eyes glued on the lecturer just end up looking insecure in their ability to deliver a compelling talk, and always seemed to me to be a little better suited to teaching children than adults.

The internet can be an incredibly valuable tool during a lecture for those following along; when I'm listening to a talk with my laptop out I'll often google unfamiliar terms or interesting ideas and make bookmarks to follow up later. Sometimes I'll even find myself engrossed in these tangential ideas and spend a little while reading about them, tuning out a portion of the lecture! If this feels rude to you, I think the problem is with your expectations, not your students' behavior. If they're learning the material and performing well on exams, why is it important that they pay rapt attention to every word you utter?

That's not to say class participation shouldn't matter; I've found lectures that work in a high degree of discussion and interaction to be very rewarding, especially when the participants are free to use the internet to bring in ideas from outside the text of the lecture itself. Go ahead and grade people based on the value and insightfulness of their comments in class, just don't assume "open laptop + no eye contact = disengaged."

When students who are doing poorly in your class seem to be showing up to lectures just to keep up appearances (or to avoid being docked for attendance, another poor practice in my opinion,) why not treat that as an individual problem and bring it up with those students? The problem isn't caused by the laptop any more than paper notebooks are to blame for middle school kids doodling and passing notes in Algebra.
posted by contraption at 10:14 AM on April 15, 2010 [12 favorites]

When I go over the syllabus, I always tell them, "Look, we're all adults here. I keep my cell phone on vibrate in case my husband calls about the baby. If you need to keep your phone on for an emergency (many of my students have kids), or you need to respond to a quick text, I trust you to make that decision about your life and handle it appropriately. If you need to take a call or text extensively, please go in the hallway -- I find the clicking noise of texting EXTREMELY distracting and some of your classmates do too. So please, do what you need to do -- return a text, take a bathroom break, use a recording device -- but please be mindful of other students."

I would let them know that surfing the web can be distracting to other students -- I was in law school when "Hot or Not" was big and seeing mostly-naked women during lecture, yes, was very distracting -- and that you also find it distracting when you can tell a particular student isn't paying attention. Tell them you find it disrespectful, and that students who surf often do poorly in the class. (I often tell my students when, say, a particular strategy on a particular assignment is usually unsuccessful in my experience.) Then you have to decide whether you'll go around the class closing surfing laptops on students' fingers, calling students out, or ignoring it as long as it's not too problematic. (And I do call students out -- I'll say, "Would you mind taking that in the hallway? You're distracting me from my lecture," as if assuming it's an honest error; they're usually so mortified it doesn't recur -- or on occasion I have simply thrown a repeat troublemaker out.)

Generally my "treat them like adults" strategy works pretty well. (I also do this with absences; I don't count excused/unexcused, I just let them have X many absences before it starts affecting their grade, because if attendance is important, it doesn't really MATTER if your reason for not being there is "good" or "bad," and I leave it up to them to work it out.) I'm very clear with them about what distracts ME from doing a good job teaching (noise, primarily). They are mostly pretty compliant with my particular rules, I think because I give reasons for them and engage them in collaboratively making the classroom a good learning environment.

Some classes just don't click, though.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:16 AM on April 15, 2010 [8 favorites]

Just so you know, I got the "make lectures more interesting" suggestion from a relative of mine who's -- guess what? a law professor.

It's kind of common sense.

Also, saying "up yours" and then criticizing other people for being "rude" in the same paragraph is a bit incongruous.

Yup, you're right: I was rude. But at least my rudeness was based on facts, not assumptions. So I stand by it.

As for the "more interesting" argument, as I say, it doesn't matter what the class's subject is, and it doesn't matter how interesting the lecturer is. I've seen students texting during a Steven Pinker lecture, and he's about the most interesting and engaging thinker around today. In the last, oh, seven years or so, in EVERY SINGLE CLASS that I've taught, and EVERY SINGLE CLASS that I've attended, no matter the subject, the lecturer, or the university, students are online and/or texting. It is 100% unavoidable these days.

In my opinion, this problem has everything to do with a student culture that values being online ALL THE TIME, and with a sense of respect that has not yet been cultivated in these students.

I will also say that there is a very strong correlation between the alert students (i.e., those who do not text or surf during class) and the students who receive good grades. Much of the motivation for wanting to fix this problem has to do with wanting the students to do better in class!
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:21 AM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

If the issue is respect for the learning environment, and you're mostly concerned about the impact on other students, I think you should take an anonymous survey about the class opinion on the subject. If the class cares, you have quite a bit of ammunition to propose changes and have them enforced by peer pressure.

But what if they don't? Is your feeling that it's a lack of respect for you enough to wholesale enforce a policy to ban surfing, or make it so difficult with pop quizzes and cold calls that people stop?

My personal bias is that it's fine. It seems unlikely that everyone is at the same level, and some people probably know a good portion of the material. I'm currently in an MBA program (weekends), and I'm fairly similar to the A student above. I get good grades, have a grasp of the material, participate in class, etc - but when the material is review for me, or something that I think I'll learn better on my own at home, I tend to break out the computer and do something else. Maybe watch streaming Tour De France, book travel, handle work email, etc. Granted, this is a program for mid-career adults, and having a few beers at the review session isn't uncommon.

I do understand that it's the professor's classroom, and they set the rules. If they said "no computers", or "wireless off, or you lose 5% of your grade", I'd follow them. I wouldn't enjoy it as much, and I'd probably just daydream instead during the less worthwhile parts, but it's your show and you set the rules.
posted by true at 10:23 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've often had professors ask their students who were using laptops, to look up something for them during class - a date, an author, a clarification of a quote, etc. For myself, I'd regularly look up info on the web that was related to a lecture, during class. And sure, in a down few seconds here or there, I might wander to something else, but it didn't detract from my paying attention in class, and it certainly wasn't the whole or majority of the time. In my opinion the laptop isn't the problem, it's the person's ego being offended that learning is only about the person speaking. Instructors, professors, teachers, absolutely do have valuable info to teach and share, but all of us supplement our knowledge in different ways both in and out of the classroom. Are you more interested in your students learning, or about not being in the spotlight?
posted by raztaj at 10:24 AM on April 15, 2010

if they are not bothering other students

And therein lies the problem. You think having five screens between you and the professor displaying facebook party pictures might be distracting? Since you can't police every laptop, keeping them out of the middle of the classroom is a good compromise.

This really isn't about the student-professor relationship anyway. This is about the student-student relationship, and the prof has a professional obligation to create a good learning environment for all the students in the classroom. Giving a good lecture is part, but not the entirety, of fulfilling that obligation.
posted by Rumple at 10:25 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I understand your frustration, but I think you are fighting a losing battle. My uni makes some lectures available on podcast, and piloted a program for a while that included an ipod with paid tuition. Other schools include a laptop to the school's specifications, rolled right in with the tuition. I know what you're up against--though my sections were a lot smaller, my course subject is composition, and computers are highly encouraged as the tool for composing, and e-submission, online commenting & grading, and so on.

You may not be able to do the active walking around thing, and that works to a large extent. But the problem of wandering focus won't disappear just because you limit technology. As a student, most of my classes were taken in computer-unfriendly classrooms. I doodled, passed notes, made jokes with seatmates (especially in Lifetime Wellness & Fitness, which was taught completely from a crushingly boring PowerPoint presentation twice a week).

I don't think some of the non-TAs or non-Prof posters in the thread understand that you can't just say: they paid for the class & they don't want to pay attention, fuck 'em. I mean, you can, to a degree, but if you run into a larger than normal group of "surfers," and you use attention in class as a grade determinant--and not command of material--you will be in for a long fight with a short stick in front of grievance reviews. On the other hand, many of the students who should most be paying attention are the ones most likely to wander, and they will out themselves.

When it's a detriment to others learning, then you can enlist those others in your request for classroom decorum. the suggestion upthread for a laptop-or-device free section has merit. I'd be surprised if you could enforce an all out ban on devices--there have to be some students who have assistive devices for learning because of disability, and again, I don't think it is your intent or your place to dictate each students best style of learning.
posted by beelzbubba at 10:25 AM on April 15, 2010

Students being online/wired 24/7 is a MAJOR issue in academia right now. I have STRICT no-texting, no-surfing rules in my classes, and it's in the syllabus, and I remind the students that they will be penalized.

Damn kids on my lawn! Seriously though, this is something you cannot fight. Schools should not be wasting resources trying to be the facebook police. Your dealing with adults. If you're old enough to take out a big loan you're old enough to manage your time yourself. Treating students like children will only hinder them.

I began to give two-minute quizzes on the lecture material at the end of each class. Problem solved.

A lot of the suggestions in this vein are just ridiculous. You're an instructor at Brown. This isn't high school. It's not your job as the professor to make sure students pay attention. What good is quizzing students? It's a legalistic approach that's just going to make the learning environment in your lecture hall more disengaging and alienate your students.

Seriously - if the lecture is interesting and the students are interested in the subject matter, they will pay attention and not surf facebook. If they aren't, well, forcing them off facebook will only result in them doodling through class, goggling their classmates bodies, whatever. If you really think your lecture is super interesting and engaging but all of your students, assuming they chose to take the class, are surfing facebook the whole time, then you should probably reevaluate how interesting your teaching methods are. At a place like Brown, if t he course is interesting and engaging, students will be engaged and interested. I base this observation on my experience as someone among the very first facebook users. Facebook was created for college students.

Also, dividing one's attention between a bunch of web platforms is pretty par for the course for any student these days. They do it while they study, they do it while they write their papers, they will continue to do it in class.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:26 AM on April 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

I multi-task. Very well. In fact, I am a horrible single-tasker. I don't think I'm special in those regards, especially with the current generations we have floating around.

I check MeFi on my phone during meetings sometimes. It keeps my brain awake while I'm also processing what the speaker is saying. If I could not surf MeFi, I would be picking lint off of my clothes, pulling at split ends in my hair, or staring out the window. The latter are conducive to neither critical thought nor creativity.

If somebody "banned" anything I was doing, especially my means of keeping my brain awake, it would not sit well. I would actually be irritable and less engaged in that meeting (or class, in this case.) Why? Because I'm an adult.

College students are in college and are also adults. Stupid, young adults? Possibly, but adults none the less. They can make their own decisions and live with the consequences that result. The ones that can't multi-task and are zoning out on the Internet the whole class? Natural selection— they'll fail.

However, girls in bras? Come on. As I said— stupid, young adults. Teach them the meaning of NSFW. Make fun of them, call them out in front of everyone. "OMG, are you serious? You're gonna get straight fired someday, that is if you don't end up working in a shrimp shelling factory."

(Apologies to shrimp shellers and factory workers. I use this example of a crappy job because I too have worked in a shrimp shelling factory.)
posted by functionequalsform at 10:26 AM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

I really dislike many of the solutions you've selected as "best" answer, since they strike me as passive-aggressive and condescending, and may result in the students having even less respect for you and the class.

They've paid for the course, and they've decided to be there. If they want to squander their time, that's their choice. As long as you're confident that the material you're presenting will be helpful to the students, and that it's helpful and fulfilling for you to prepare and present the material, then who cares if the students are listening.

One portion of class where I do feel it's absolutely appropriate to tell students to close their laptops is while other students are presenting work. Maybe you could begin each class with a student presentation about the week's material (reading or lecture), and make sure laptop lids are down while the students present. It'd keep your students on their toes when it comes to learning the material, and ensure that there are at least a few minutes in each session where students can connect with one another and be on the same page.
posted by aparrish at 10:26 AM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

On preview, THIS:

Also, dividing one's attention between a bunch of web platforms is pretty par for the course for any student these days. They do it while they study, they do it while they write their papers, they will continue to do it in class.

posted by functionequalsform at 10:28 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

[Sorry cant read all answers now, at work (heh heh ironic) but wanted to add this]

Is it possible you could do the class outside? Preferably walking around? so people cannot have their laptops with them and thus MUST focus on the instructions?

That's how the Greeks did it.

Ok, that is a BIT extreme, but maybe have a lot of "moving around" activities in the class where people get up from there seats an thus keeps them from lunging the laptop with them. Or have a hot potato that is passed from student to student, and whenever the hot potato is handed to you the professor might call on you at any moment? 1) if I have that, I'll be damn sure I'm paying attention 2) you can gauge who is paying attention by who is not grabbing the potato from someone trying to hand it to them.

Riffing on the hot potato... what about this. Have a beach ball (or something light that won't damage anything if thrown) and a rule that while there is natural down time in the lecture (writing on the board, switching slide, professor shuffling notes) the beach ball can be thrown/passed around willy nilly... but the moment the professor starts speaking the beach ball activities must cease and it stays with who currently has it (unless someone requests it I guess)

then the social contract is that, whoever has the beachball is likely to be called on/picked on by the professor to provider answers, insight, opinion, commentary on the work being discussed (like the beach ball person ALWAYS has their hand raised by rule).

yes... these are gimmicky and sophomoric, but dangling %5 of the grade for subjective assessment of who is "looking at the professor" is equally naive and sophomoric in a more socially accepted but still flawed way. Instead view it as "unorthodox" and "revolutionary".

Please let me know if you do this and how it goes!
posted by DetonatedManiac at 10:28 AM on April 15, 2010

I took a course wherein "class attentiveness" was 20% of the grade, and using cellphones, laptops (etc) was given as the primary way to lose this part of one's grade. It seemed to work.

(if he was in my section, trust me - he would no longer have an A).

Ivy League and no subjective? What's happening to the world?
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:28 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Speaking personally, I was a different student to different profs. I spent the entirety of some classes hanging onto every word. I would get anxious about missing any of those classes, because borrowing friends' notes wouldn't be the same as being there. Yes, some of the topics were extremely dry. Yes, the material was difficult and dense. Often both (corporate tax law, anyone?). All the same, I was engaged. There were other classes where I could spend the entire lecture surfing the internet, messaging friends, or playing solitaire, etc. and it wouldn't make any difference.

Don't assume that your "bad students" are a plague on all their classes. Don't assume that it's the students who need reforming. Put aside your pride for a minute and think about what you're offering that they can't get from their readings. Judging from your responses, you seem unwilling to consider that this might be a weakness in your performance rather than the students'.

if he was in my section, trust me - he would no longer have an A

Wow. If a student is earning A's with the quality of his work, then why? And once again, this is just my experience, but profs with terrible lectures who took students' grades hostage in the form of "attendance and participation marks" did not earn a whole lot of respect.

Why is it that you want to teach? Is this just a means to an end for you, or do you actually want to hone your craft as a teacher? Remember, this isn't a kindergarten class, your students are autonomous adults. The best profs I've ever had never needed to dictate rules or broadcast their authority. They inspired and motivated us in ways that "participation marks" never could.

My favorite prof in the world taught me when I was going through a really tough time and was constantly sleep-deprived. Exhausted, I regularly fell asleep in her classes. Second row in a class of 30 students. She was very senior in the department, respected the world over for her work. Did she get huffy and offended? Absolutely not. She didn't take it personally, not one bit. When I did manage to stay awake, I absorbed her lectures like a sponge. I took two more classes with her and aced them all. To this day, I'm still constantly finding ways to apply the ideas and concepts she taught, and I'm still awed by her humility and grace, her passion for teaching.
posted by keep it under cover at 10:29 AM on April 15, 2010 [9 favorites]

Oh and... no, you "multi tasking" people are ruining your brain, and not very efficient. There are are scientific studies on this. You just are not able to pay attention to how badly you are doing what you are doing. Unfortunatly the professors and graders and society at large are multi-tasking as well, so they are not paying attention to how badly you are doing what you are doing either.

posted by DetonatedManiac at 10:30 AM on April 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

Your job is to make the lecture interesting and engaging and then allow your students to make the decision as to how they spend their time, unless they are being actively disruptive or are doing inappropriate things (the Facebook bra thing might qualify). As an instructor, it is also at your discretion to influence their behaviour through grading schemes that encourage participation.

Everyone has their own learning style. Some of those students may not find 100% of your material engaging. Some of them may have ADD. Some of them are probably smarter than you. Don't be an overbearing douche who antagonizes students and instills a hatred of the material and the classroom by forcing everyone to act the way you think is right. That would be the real disservice to the learning environment.
posted by Behemoth at 10:30 AM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Damn kids on my lawn! Seriously though, this is something you cannot fight. Schools should not be wasting resources trying to be the facebook police. Your dealing with adults. If you're old enough to take out a big loan you're old enough to manage your time yourself. Treating students like children will only hinder them.

Actually, I feel that part of our job as college professors is to encourage students to develop the sense of decency and respect that adult communication depends on. By penalizing them for texting, etc., in class, I am not the one being childish: they are, in that they're not respecting the course, their instructor, or their classmates.

College is about more than book-learning, you know. It's a place where students are supposed to develop as people, and gain insight into how the world works. Much of this has everything to do with student-student and student-teacher interactions. Students who show respect get treated with respect.
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:31 AM on April 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

Run a Wall of Sheep (image) display.
posted by rhizome at 10:32 AM on April 15, 2010

When I had this problem in a 150-person lecture, I began to give two-minute quizzes on the lecture material at the end of each class. Problem solved.

And to make it less about punishment, you can use the responses to start the next lecture---as in, "it seemed from the responses to yesterdays post-lecture questions that a number of you are confused on the application of the definition of the derivative to finding the equation of the tangent line, so we're going to start today's lecture with another example."

That way, the quizzes are really being given for the students' benefit. But you can assign a grade to them as well (say, +, -, 0) and factor them into the participation grade at the end of class.

It would be similar to the minute paper (scroll down)---in fact, it would be interesting just to use those questions [ "What was the most important thing you learned during this class?" and "What important question remains unanswered?" ] and see what kind of responses you get.
posted by leahwrenn at 10:32 AM on April 15, 2010

Response by poster: For all of you who claim to make lecture more interesting/engaging - it isn't that I'm not concerned with that, but that I don't think this is necessarily the heart of the issue here. I've been in lectures on my favorite topic, and I've still checked my email. I'm not claiming I'm perfect here by any means!

If you care to elaborate on how you would go about making it engaging/interesting? I expect to teach courses of about 100 + people in size - and it may be a requirement where the students aren't as naturally inclined to the material covered. What to do in these cases?
posted by quodlibet at 10:37 AM on April 15, 2010

Best answer: I've been one of those students who can't concentrate because of what other students in the same room are doing (whether it was talking or texting or web surfing or whatever). I would have really appreciated seeing a professor give those students at least a little bit of shit for what they were doing to disrupt the class. I could only give them so many dirty looks and "SHHHHH"s, and felt pretty powerless when the professors did absolutely nothing about it.

I don't get the responses about "it's their money, let them waste it"--no, a class/lecture is very much a shared experience. When other students are affected, it's out of line. I was paying money to be there, too.
posted by so_gracefully at 10:37 AM on April 15, 2010 [19 favorites]

These kids ... have, for the msot part, not yet developed the sense of courtesy and, above all, respect that would encourage them to pay some attention to the classes that they are, indeed, paying a lot of money for.

...a sense of respect that has not yet been cultivated in these students

Unless you teach at a finishing school, this implied desire to use your position of authority to inculcate your students with a new outlook on respect and courtesy seems disrespectful to their autonomy as adults who (I'm presuming) have not enrolled in a class on Etiquette. If they're actively impeding the learning of others, sure, make an example of them, ask them to knock it off or leave, dock their grades. But if they're sitting in lecture disengaged for any reason and it's keeping them from learning the material, presumably you have metrics in place to detect that learning deficit and grade them accordingly.
posted by contraption at 10:44 AM on April 15, 2010 [7 favorites]

Best answer: So my college had a required laptop program (but then dealt with this issue) and now I work in a high tech industry where everyone's got a smartphone.

Look. People are connected. They are connected all the time and they are connected more and more. I never turn my phone off. If anything it's on vibrate. In my meetings even with senior executives, everyone's on their damn Blackberry the moment the meeting derails to something that doesn't involve them. Everyone has a laptop, a phone, an iPad, whatever. We all pull them out at dinner or lunch. We all answer our work phones and email at home.

There are plenty of people ranting and raving against the downfall of civilization as we know it because of how "on" people are all the time, and I agree it can go too far, but it IS a feedback cycle. If you are on your laptop all the time during class, you will miss important information and fail. If you are playing Scrabble on your phone during an important meeting, you will look like an idiot in front of important people if you are asked to respond to something and have clearly missed the whole conversation. If you are incessantly answering phone calls or emails at dinner with friends, they will stop inviting you.

Frankly, just as college teaches you many life skills, it should also teach you appropriate management of your technology and distractions. This is a time for them to learn this.

As the person in the front of the room, I understand that it bothers you when people don't seem to be paying attention, but even without laptops half the kids would be zoned out or working on homework for another class. You cannot command 100% attention, even at your most engaging and entertaining. At best, you can (and should) be making the course interactive and participatory that gives you a chance to call on students to answer questions. If they look dumb often enough, the problem may solve itself -- as it should. Is any component of the grade participation-based? Maybe it should be.

As a student in a class, my biggest issue would be distraction from other people playing with their gadgets (in one class where I *was* trying to pay attention, the guy in front of me was playing Sim City on his laptop the whole lecture, and I could not look away), so you might try pitching things that way to make the class itself more self-policing.

That is my $.02 that I'm sure will piss people off, but frankly the "everyone turn off your laptops and phones for a distraction-free room" is simply not representative of the real world. I understand what you're trying to do, but I think it's an uphill battle that won't have the payoff you think it will.

That said, anyone looking at shirtless girls in class deserves a callout.
posted by olinerd at 10:47 AM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

As a triple-major, Latin honors, grant-winning college student, I have to admit that I occasionally surfed the web in class. It was mostly in, as greekphilosophy says, the least engaging classes. Even in more engaging classes, I still doodled and fidgeted and played with my hair. Like a lot of millennials, I think and work best when multitasking. It doesn't mean I didn't listen to or respect my professors (I really respect professors; I'm on my way to becoming one). It's just the way my brain works.

I've seen professors take two attitudes to the computer issue. The first kind of professor accepts the fact that the student is ultimately going to pay as much attention as he or she likes, that surfing the internet is no worse than doodling or passing notes, that young people being constantly plugged in isn't necessarily a bad thing, just a new thing, and that some students (like me) have hyperactive brains. They continue teaching as normal (occasionally asking a student with a laptop to look something up). The second kind just bans laptops in the classroom altogether, which is a totally valid teaching choice that students will deal with. The choice is yours.

It sounds like the real problem is that you're starting to resent your students. You're always going to have some students who disrespect you. It's just a perk of academia, along with a bleak job market and long hours. If you can't deal with the occasional kid acting in a way that makes you feel like you're not the most important thing in the room, even if you are the most important thing in the room, then be a real hard-ass from the first class. Students don't take classes with professors they're terrified of unless they're really willing to work hard.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:51 AM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Actually, I feel that part of our job as college professors is to encourage students to develop the sense of decency and respect that adult communication depends on. By penalizing them for texting, etc., in class, I am not the one being childish: they are, in that they're not respecting the course, their instructor, or their classmates.

Above and beyond the not paying attention problem, this seems like kind of a culture clash issue. Where I work, there are tons of adults who read their email or send texts during meetings. In fact, if you show up to a meeting with a notebook and pen and just sit there giving the person talking your full attention you will look completely out of place. So teaching students that it's a universal part of adult communication etiquette that you should never be on the Internet while someone is showing a PowerPoint presentation is not really realistic in terms of what the real world is like, at least in my experience.

Yes, people who multitask all the time and never seem to devote their full attention to anything are annoying, but it seems to be a natural consequence of devices that let everyone stay wired all the time. I doubt the phenomenon will be going away any time soon, and the kids growing with things like Facebook and smartphones are going to be the ones who ultimately decide what is or isn't socially acceptable with regard to using these devices, rather than us.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:53 AM on April 15, 2010

I'm a professor who faced this problem. Make it interesting, they paid for it they can do what they want (?!!), don't punish the notetakers, the ones who care will pay attention-- that's not how classrooms work. If one's only experience is as a student, one can't understand how distracting internet surfing is to the teacher.

The only way solution for me was to ban computers. I tell the students that if they have a legitimate need for computers, to let me within the first two weeks of class. The die-hard computer notetakers always ask for permission-- never more than one or two a class-- and I avoid the problem. I worried that some might feel awkward using computers while others around them don't, but honestly, the students don't care. Most students at my school don't take notes anyway, so I'm hardly depriving them of a valued learning experience. No one has complained about my computer policy on course evaluations in the three years since I implemented it.

I sat in on a colleague's class last week. Every kid on a computer-- every one-- was on Facebook. A few were also playing sudoku. That was in spite of the teacher using Powerpoint, writing on the board, and showing film clips.

A few times a semester I schedule activities that require the use of a computer so they can get their internet-in-class fix that way.

Ban 'em and don't give it another thought. The ones who care will talk to you and you can make accommodations for them. It's your classroom. Run it the way you want.
posted by vincele at 10:54 AM on April 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

I've had one or two instructors say, "If you're going to waste your time in class, skip class. I don't need you here distracting the other students if all you're doing is texting people and surfing the Internet." I think this might actually be a sensible approach.

It's tough because, on the one hand, these students adults and you shouldn't treat them like misbehaving grade schoolers, but on the other hand, these adults can act like children. I really think some of them just don't realize that they aren't in high school anymore--that just showing up for class isn't good enough, and that if they're not going to pay attention in lecture, they might as well skip it and get the lecture slides off the course website. It's distracting to other students when they act like immature brats and spend class sighing and muttering and texting and chatting and surfing the web. It's not distracting to other students when the texters/surfers don't show up for class.

So, if the lectures are necessarily dense, I think it would be reasonable to say not only what others have suggested (i.e., explicitly tell your students, "I've noticed some of you surfing the web, it's distracting to those behind you so please stop") but also to suggest that they waste their time elsewhere if they're going to be wasting it anyway.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:55 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

As mentioned briefly above, small portable active jamming devices exist, and are available for sale at various places around the internet, especially from electronics retailers in Hong Kong & Shenzhen.

They are illegal in many countries (like the US), but the likelihood of being caught is extremely low unless you opt for a wall-powered version (battery device in briefcase = difficult to catch you).

You could, if you wished, use a jamming device on occasion. The battery-driven models can't stay active for terribly long, but the ones I'm familiar with could easily ruin telecom in that classroom for most of an average class -- especially if you have a mechanism for switching it on randomly. Their range is predictably low, but may suffice for your purposes. Such a device would make internet usage (3G and/or wifi) really irritating.

Note that these devices tend to get fairly hot, so you may wish to consider how to hide them without also ruining airflow. Note also that, although their range is limited by virtue of their power source, these devices may interfere with nearby telecoms (eg: the office next door), so consider where your collateral RF damage is going.

Not that I am encouraging you to break any laws, and certainly this is not based on any personal experience of my own. I never break laws. Were you to use such a device, you would have to avoid telling anyone about it, especially anyone who does not recall a time when people were not immediately reachable by telephone at any hour of the day or night (many appear to be amazed that humanity could have survived such a period).
posted by aramaic at 11:01 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

You've received a bunch of good hints about dealing with laptops. I particularly like Rumple's suggestion and may use that when I do another 300-person lecture in the fall.

But I hope you won't mind if I offer another related observation:

You sound like you're relatively new to TAing. If this is your first time, it's also the first time the world has slapped you in the head with this simple fact:

Your students are Not Like You.

You're a grad student at an excellent university. You presumably had some serious amount of sincere interest in what you were studying as an undergrad and enjoyed the work you were doing, or at least saw the utility of it. That was me, too. That was most of us who end up teaching college. But most undergrads are Not Like Us. And they're not going to be like us.

I worry for you a little bit because you're bothered by the surfing etc because you think it shows a lack of respect for the class, and is rude. And, sure, it is. But if you have a class where the rudest, most disrespectful thing the students do is websurf, that's a good class. Personally, I think it's ruder when students perform abysmally on the exam (hint: Kramer vs. Kramer and Kal-El vs. Zod were not important Supreme Court cases about civil liberties.), or ask me halfway through the semester if they should maybe read the book or at least buy it, or a whole host of other dumbfuckeries that will, I assure you, gast your flabber but good. And back when I was an undergrad 88-92, there was no wireless and no cell phones and no texting, but professors were still agitated, a lot, by student inattention. Back then, it took the form of read the student newspaper or doing the crossword, was all.

Frankly, the best advice I can give for the overall situation is to remember that it isn't about you. The students are who they are, and by and large they're going to keep being that no matter who's in front of the class. Them surfing and texting isn't any particular reflection on you or your teaching, nor is their refusal to read the material or their refusal to comprehend the easily comprehensible. Really, firmly INSISTING on their respect or respectfulness is, outside SLACs anyway, a pretty quick path to eternal disgruntlement. Some students are going to be inattentive, and they're going to be inattentive in ways that you might feel are disrespectful or publicly shaming. But it isn't about you.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:01 AM on April 15, 2010 [37 favorites]

This is a tricky question - it is best solved, I think, by an up-front policy so that what you do isn't seen as an arbitrary or unfair action.

Oddly enough, I was thinking about this in terms of a phrase heard in connection with Burning Man: don't do anything to interfere with anyone else's immediate experience.

In other words, by surfing in class you are at a minimum distracted from the class and at worst are distracting those around you. In any event, you are likely not taking in the lecture/discussion in a useful way.

I would be inclined to say, with a smile, "I invite you to surf the web all you want, but please not here and not now. It is distracting to those around you. Students are welcome to come and go as they please - please surf outside the room. You can get the notes from someone else after class. Thanks."

It also strikes me that it's like having vast quantities of gas in class. Sure, a one-cheek sneak now and again is fine, but maybe after three or four, you might consider excusing yourself.
posted by plinth at 11:12 AM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just ban laptops. Several of my professors do this, and I think its a good thing.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 11:13 AM on April 15, 2010

I favorite ROU_X's answer 7 million times.

But one thing to add, although it didn't work for me:

Take a survey at the beginning of class - live with clickers if you can - to set some norms.

"On a scale of 1-5 how distracting are the following behaviors by others in a lecture hall:

- doing a crossword puzzle
- texting
- playing on Facebook
- giving you a cookie
- being hot
- typing notes on a laptop
- writing notes on paper"

And present the students with what their peers said. Remind them of this regularly (put it in the syllabus/CMS/and remind it in class.) (Not reminding them is where it went wrong for me.) Violating peer norms is a crime for college kids.

Also start reading profhacker.com (moving to CHE soon) for lots of thoughts about thing sort of thing.
posted by k8t at 11:16 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing making the lectures more interesting. Lots of professors and college instructors make the unforgivable mistake of giving everybody a handout and then standing up and reading through the goddamned handout. Or worse, along with the handout comes a powerpoint presentation containing the material in the handout which is then read off the screen. This is not engaging and this is not higher learning. Of course students tune out of that. Hopefully you already know this and don't do those things.

Lectures need to cover material that isn't in the readings. Lectures need to be about taking the ideas off the printed page and letting them develop. If your lecture can be handed out beforehand as a text document or a powerpoint handout, then there's no point in even delivering it and it is a waste of time.

Even if you're up there offering an engaging discussion about exciting things, there may well be a few students who are dividing their attention in one way or another and if they're surfing something really NSFW then they should be called out for it. Beyond that, live and let live.
posted by wabbittwax at 11:21 AM on April 15, 2010

I leave them be. In large lectures, that is. (Small classes are a different matter, and they use their devices a LOT less).

Too many students take notes on their laptops for me to ban them.

I do try to be engaging, and I largely succeed. Not always, of course, but I do take that to be part of my job.

I honestly don't care about the occasional quick text. C'mon, fellow professors, let's admit that we have all sent or received a text message at a talk, faculty meeting, etc. I actually hate the attitude of "full attention on me at all times no matter what" -- we don't adhere to it ourselves, and it just comes out sounding like "me me me me me ME ME ME!!!!!!!!!!"

It's different, of course, when someone is being egregiously rude in the front of the lecture hall. That's tremendously distracting. In the back of the lecture hall? Well.... see next point.

I am not a babysitter. The kids who are screwing around online are mostly just harming themselves. And at least they're getting, like, 50% of the material, which is more than they'd get if they didn't come to class at all.

Many do multitask. I agree with the haters above that multitasking ≠ doing many tasks well, but, again, at least they're in class.
posted by kestrel251 at 11:22 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Mr. Jones, can you tell me how the core values advocated by Castiglione's The Book Of The Courtier are reflected in our modern society through, for example, the displaying of boudoir photos on Facebook?" And then continue the grilling for, say, 10 minutes.

This is a dickish way to manage a class, and it will backfire. You're putting a student on the spot, and you are also drawing attention to yourself, rather than focusing attention on the coursework.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:26 AM on April 15, 2010

From my Facebook (where I posted this):

"if I catch them, they are asked to leave class immediately and lose points. If I SUSPECT they are online (which is most often the case - it's hard to catch them since they close out so quickly when you walk around), there will be a pop quiz the next class period. I did the pop quiz once and it worked."
posted by k8t at 11:28 AM on April 15, 2010

Best answer: I'm a grad student TA as well.

I think your first step is to ask them respectfully, without ire, to give the class conversation their full attention. If that's what you want, you have a right to ask. Don't treat them like naughty children. That's not a display of stable authority. Know their names and call on them to provide comment, and try to foster an environment of engaging, low-pressure discourse so they feel free to participate on their own or when asked, and to listen to one another, rather than to feel walled off from one another, which is part of the problem with being engrossed in a laptop -- "I'm busily browsing the web, don't talk to me."

I hate it when lecturers (only a guest lecturer did this) carp about our apparent websurfing. That can also be rude. Students are all different and have different goals in class. Like contraption (who I tend to agree with on many things, hi honey), I use my laptop as an enrichment resource, and these days sometimes professors benefit from that resource. If I can pipe up and add relevant comment I've just discovered, that can be beneficial to discussion, when done well. As a TA, I welcome this kind of contribution too.

My point is, etiquette is not an end in itself. If productive discussion is the goal, laptop use needs to be managed specifically in service of that goal. I wouldn't be shy about walking the room and regulating on students who are surfing in ways they can't relate to course concepts. If you should find one who is, I think perhaps a brief sidebar about what curiosity they're following encourages and models a good form of scholarship and fosters intellectual community. Certainly that immersion in their business requires you to be boldly engaged with them, and likewise models the same behavior.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:33 AM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

For all of you who claim to make lecture more interesting/engaging - it isn't that I'm not concerned with that, but that I don't think this is necessarily the heart of the issue here. I've been in lectures on my favorite topic, and I've still checked my email. I'm not claiming I'm perfect here by any means!

If you care to elaborate on how you would go about making it engaging/interesting? I expect to teach courses of about 100 + people in size - and it may be a requirement where the students aren't as naturally inclined to the material covered. What to do in these cases?

I''' quickly reinterate my point because it's superficially similar to "make it interesting" but fundamentally different: Make your lectures necessary to well in the class.

Most of the assumptions here are that the students are brats who need to be entertained 24/7. And that's true for some. But many- like me when I was an undergrad- know that some lectures are not necessary to do well in the class. Most students, even if they don't give a damn about respecting the class or whatever you think the issue, will put away Facebook and pay attention, if the lecture contains information that they need to understand the material and do well in the class.

This doesn't mean your lecture sucks. Do your evaulations reflect your lectures adequetely as well? I've had many classes where the lecture was perfectly fine- relevant and interesting- but the tests were almost entirely on text material.

If your lectures put text material in context and add a greater level of understanding to the information, then make sure the evaulations test and require that greater level of understanding.

I will also say that there is a very strong correlation between the alert students (i.e., those who do not text or surf during class) and the students who receive good grades.

This is what is known as a self correcting problem.
posted by spaltavian at 11:35 AM on April 15, 2010

Why don't you, every so often during your lecture, call on people randomly and ask a related question? You're not calling out anyone in particular, you're just keeping people on their toes.
posted by inturnaround at 11:37 AM on April 15, 2010

Best answer: From my facebook, this time from a friend that studies digital literacy and computers in college classrooms:

""Is it a large lecture hall? I'm going to assume it is. I can send you a whole sheet I prepared for a colleague at Berkeley, but here's a few quick tips.
--call upon people randomly. Let them know you're going to do this, cut up your roster and randomly pull a name out of a hat. Ask them to concisely summarize something you just said, or discuss implications for a different scenario, etc. The point is to let them know that there's rewards for paying attn...and consequences for not paying attention. I did this pre-Internet and it improved discussion and was also a non-confrontational way of ensuring participation/attention.
--you can have "laptops down" moments, where you ask everyone to close their laptops to help them think and focus.
--I start the quarter off being honest and saying that it's really tough to speak to a large crowd and tougher still when you have to compete for their attention (e.g., talking in class, or using tech to tune out), so to make it easier on me and more interesting for them, I'll be asking questions throughout the lecture and if I see someone not paying attention, I will most likely call on them.
--have students present some of the info, where appropriate. Each class period, I have a 5 minute block for student presentations -- students definitely seem more interested in information from their peers. If the students get the info wrong, I use it as a teachable moment.
--I also do fun things, like take pictures of the audience when they look the most bored and include it in the next class period's powerpoint, just to let them know what my view is like. Then I use the image as a background for some of the slides. People love to see themselves.
--or, the best scenario is to incorporate the laptops into instruction. Even in a lecture, you can have scavenger hunts or discovery moments. For every class period, I assign a couple bloggers to report on what they learned. You get a record of the class, students who missed have a useful resource, and students with restless finger syndrome have somewhere to focus their energy. Here's a link: http://www.brenmesm.blogspot.com""
posted by k8t at 11:39 AM on April 15, 2010 [12 favorites]

When I taught intro classes at a university, I did my best to make the lectures interesting (hopefully we all do that), but I also did my best to structure the homeworks and exams in such a way that those students who were attentive in class would find them fairly straightforward, while those who skipped class or fooled around on the internet the whole time would find them difficult. At the same time, I turned a completely blind eye to any "multitasking" going on in class, including sleeping (after all, I occasionally fell asleep in classes myself, usually because I didn't sleep well the night before). Students were (politely) warned at the beginning of the semester that it was important to come to class and keep up with the material, and that playing with their computers during class would make it harder on themselves.

Another useful activity was to give a one-question pop-quiz every class session (usually near the end) dealing with the day's material, which students would answer on an index card. Again, attentive students would find these easy to answer, whereas inattentive students would not. This provided me with a metric for who was attending regularly without actually "taking attendance", and provided the students with a check on how well they were following along. One student told me that the cards were actually a useful minature study guide for the final, not because they were full of info, but because they were good reminders of topics and techniques I had focused on, especially if the student had gotten the question wrong. This did increase my grading burden, but I think it was well worth it.

The last time I taught, I had two students who habitually computered in class, and predictably, they did badly on the written assignments and exams, and received poor grades. One of them was fairly bright, and even professed to be interested in the material, but didn't pay attention in class at all. I have a feeling he would have done fine if he'd just put away the computer. The other was just tuned out completely. I hope they learned a lesson there. Paying attention to "boring" material is tough, but you must teach yourself to do it in order to succeed academically. A lecture on, say, latent dirichlet association is just not going to be entertaining, but if you're interested in that type of modeling, you need to absorb it.

Porn during class is a completely different problem. I don't know how I'd handle that, but I like the suggestions above about publicly calling the offender out.
posted by Maximian at 11:41 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Students think they're invisible. Unless you've specifically called out Facebook-surfing etc in your class, I guarantee you that about 80% of the offenders will think you haven't noticed they're doing it. Let them know that you have. You don't need to do this by delivering a formal-sounding rant at the front of the class - turning up next to Tetris Kid's desk and saying "Oooh! A square one! Drop it on the left, drop it on the left!... Yes, can we save the Tetris for after class, please? Thank you" will work just as well (and will keep your own stress levels lower).

And yeah, people saying "be more interesting!" are misguided. I try to find interesting ways to teach even the dullest grammar issues, but it can't be Dead Poets Society 24/7. (And even if it could, somebody would still be texting under the table.)
posted by Catseye at 11:46 AM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Can you get permission to disengage wireless access? Sorry I'm not well versed in technology to know if that's possible without wiping out the entire school during off hours.

It is your class. You are the authority. Tell the little jerks that your way or the highway--computers off. They can retype their notes later. Pen and paper didn't hurt anyone.
posted by stormpooper at 11:46 AM on April 15, 2010

I will also say that there is a very strong correlation between the alert students (i.e., those who do not text or surf during class) and the students who receive good grades. Much of the motivation for wanting to fix this problem has to do with wanting the students to do better in class!

Agreed. This is less about the rights of students to act like assholes*ahem*adults than it is about how classrooms and instructors are adapting to new rules of technology and engagement.

1. Professors will and have tried lots of strategies to keep students engaged and learning BECAUSE IT IS THEIR JOB. They are paid and scored, literally sometimes, by student evaluations and pass/fail rates. A student who is distracted, distracting, and not learning is a problem the professor has the right to address and remedy. The professor's job is to maximize learning, however s/he has to.

2. Professors have the right to decide how Draconian or laissez-faire they want their classroom to be. Teaching styles vary. The students have the right to leave if they don't like it. The professor has the right to remove students that don't comply.

3. Professors have the right to expel students caught looking at ANYTHING inappropriate (read: pretty much anything involving women+skin) because it's a sexual harassment issue and the professor is responsible for creating an "safe and appropriate learning environment".

4. Professors are not talking textbooks. Classrooms are not just about learning information, but the customs and protocols of the field: the non-verbals of the conversation - academic, business, or social - the students will enter. The WAY something is talked about is as, if not more, important than WHAT is talked about.

Emily Post for iPhones? It's being worked out in the classrooms.

p.s. I multi-task. Very well.

Please give me your name so I can be sure to never hire you.

@neuron: unnecessary, rude, and unproductive criticism. I believe that's what the kids these days call a "troll", and is more appropriate for a forum like 4chan.
posted by crash blossoms at 11:49 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

The guy who said "up yours" is not particularly rude. Metafilter is awash with all sorts of outbursts, so this is acceptable. I taught in history subjects at several u's, incl. Ivies. Then I quit teaching for my own self-started profession in academic publishing. I still am active in my field, and publish successfully. Now: let me say, Humanities studies in history, esp., involve attention being paid to difficult, in some sense philological work. Ideas about the past emerge in people's minds only when some hard work gets devoted to this general sort of philological engagement. (I use the word "phil'gy" generally and enthusiastically. It is not a creaky old-fashioned thing, but it is about self-examination and cultural examination through people's words and other expressions.)

It is NOT intellectually healthy to be in a teaching environment with students who are not disciplined enough to sit still and concentrate on perhaps mind-numbing things. As an undergrad in Asia lang's, history, and religions in the 60s (difficult but inspiring courses), I did that countless hundreds of hours with great teachers, some of whom would probably today be hooted off campus via tweats. A teacher in humanities and of course "hard" sciences, or anything else, must, absolutely must! set up a certain intellectual environment AT THE VERY BEGINNING OF THE SEMESTER for all those students who lack general discipline. They must be told right away that philological (or whatever word might be less scary) involves thinking thru ideas (and images, and cultural patterns) from the past (even science is founded on past clusters of ideas). They must be given a model for how they will be taught to engage in perhaps obscure notions from the past, and how to do their reasoning about those ideas. I.e. how to sort out the voices in texts, how to assess the sincerity, or lyric play, or emotion, or rhetoric in those texts. It is like archeological decipherment, and that has proven successful in my experience to getting the discipline going. (My head prof was fantastic at this and I modeled after him in my own teaching.)

It may work, by giving students the very small inspiration that they are in a class that has a mysterious art form, and that at leat SOME of them can get an insight into how it works, by following the guide you give them, concentrating on it, and asking good questions. What I am saying is "frame your art for them." GOOD LUCK.
posted by yazi at 11:59 AM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I haven't read through all of these yet, but when this happened in classes when I taught my method of discipline was simple. This was all stated in the syllabus, too, so they were forewarned. I also didn't generally allow laptops. Mostly because I, as a recent student, realize that even I wouldn't be able to resist the urge to play mah-jong through class.

First, I'd stop lecturing and ask them, pointedly, to stop texting/surfing the internet and to put the device away. Not in private. Call them out in front of the class. Wait until they do it to continue. This really, really embarrasses students. They really want to avoid having that kind of attention paid to them.

The second time it happens with the student, ask them to leave. The exact words I used were "I've asked you to put that away. Please leave." Repeat the last two words as necessary, eve if they're arguing with you.

I never got as far as the second more than once a semester, and usually not at all. Students really want to avoid being called out and will police themselves to avoid having that attention paid to them. They'd be pretty surprised by how strict I was about this and other policies (like my no partial credit, ever policy) for about the first week, mostly because I had tattoos and a mohawk. But they learned fast that I took the class seriously, and so should they--and ironically, if my evaluations were any indication, it didn't stop students from liking me or feeling they learned something in my class.

Incidentally, I learned the no-nonsense approach from a few of my best college professors. One guy had a wicked sense of humor--he told us that the only device allowed in class was his taser, and that if you used an electronic device, HE WILL TASE YOU. And then if he saw someone doing it, he'd pretty much act as above--not tase them, I mean, but he'd tell them that he could see what they were doing, that it was obvious, and to put it away or he'd fail them.

You're not a babysitter, so don't act like one. Don't be wishy-washy or coddling. Demand respect or tell them to leave. Yes, they're adults. They don't have to be there. But you should establish that one of the cardinal rules for being in your classroom is that you act respectfully to whoever is speaking. If they don't like that rule, as an adult, they can leave at any time. No skin off your back.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:08 PM on April 15, 2010 [7 favorites]

It drove me mad.

Then this sounds like your problem.

The problem of the student being online is a matter of respect for the learning environment I believe.

This comment makes you sounds like a control freak who will mange to get the students to actively hate you if you try to pull any sort of banning of devices or laptops. Let it go, give two minutes quizzes at the end of class at most, but let it go. You have no idea if the stuident is bored, behind, drunk, blowing off steam, checking on the status of something important or what. Attempting to legislate that dilutes YOUR focus.

In my experience, most teachers who actively demanded your attention all the time were pompous windbags who loved to hear themselves talk i.e. were boring. Don't be that teacher.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:13 PM on April 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

Wow. As someone who's been a college student for a *very* long time (13 years), who's TAed her share of classes, and was overjoyed to move into an industry job while finishing yet *another* graduate degree, I've got to say, I would have HATED to have some of you as professors. I did not consider myself going to class to learn how to "respect the teacher" but to learn the subject material. If I knew the subject material but I had to be in the class ANYWAY to fulfill a credit, there was no choice but to be doing something else. More than anything, I have always hated wasting time. Since I did my undergrad in the days before Wifi was rampant, I frequently drew up schedules, lists, and budgets, wrote in my diary, and worked on homework for other classes.

I do agree, however, that students shouldn't be distracting other students. That means no laughing, talking, etc, so if the students with laptops need to sit on the borders of the class, that seems an acceptable compromise. (The only time laptops annoyed me much, honestly, was when there was giggling.) And porn or NSFW imagery should be singled out. But if the majority of the students are playing Sudoku? That's not like watching a movie or playing a FPS. That's something you do to do something with your hands while you're listening to something else. It's not that interesting, easily stoppable, and not really very distracting to anyone.

The professor I had that handled the situation best was in a smallish seminar in grad school. He knew perfectly well people were not just looking at related material on their laptops, but he, frankly, didn't care. He was confident what he was saying was important, and if you missed it, you could slog through the journal articles on your own time. In addition, he had the students on laptops look up references and material for him during the lecture, so not only were they participating and using their Google-fu, they were actually participating MORE than the folks with no laptops. (I don't mean he was unprepared, I mean as he was talking and interacting, he might think of a conference or piece of software that would add to his lecture.) And the person who found the best example of what he wanted would give him the link so he could display it for the whole class. He used the students with laptops as a tool for his teaching rather than an impediment to it. He also treated the students like adults when he did this, something most students react well to.
posted by wending my way at 12:28 PM on April 15, 2010 [11 favorites]

But if the majority of the students are playing Sudoku? That's not like watching a movie or playing a FPS. That's something you do to do something with your hands while you're listening to something else. It's not that interesting, easily stoppable, and not really very distracting to anyone.

How easily distracted you are is highly dependent on the student. When I was one, I found someone playing a game on a laptop to be insanely disruptive to my ability to pay attention. Heck, I spent one grad seminar (of 8 people!) sitting next to a girl to would text through the entire thing under the table. I eventually had to move. I just couldn't focus. If she'd been writing a poem in a notebook, I wouldn't have noticed. But screens and devices are outside-of-the-norm enough to divert my attention completely.

Incidentally, when I taught, I also never took attendance. If students missed class, that would be reflected in their work, I figured (unless they had a medical excuse, I never gave make-up work). If they could do fine on the work without being there, that was fine, too. But if they found my class boring or uninformative, they didn't need to be there for my benefit--but I didn't want them to distract the students who wanted to be there and found participating in class to be a helpful exercise.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:34 PM on April 15, 2010

Best answer: IF you see them not taking notes on the machines Tell them to leave. You have a right to do that.

Also wonder around while speaking. Gets the students nervous and they will stop.

Also give quizes out about what yo utalked about. Make sure that you speak about some things that are not in the slides or handouts.

Put things in the tests that are only available from your speaking.

Make it hard to get an A if your not paying attention to the elcture.
posted by majortom1981 at 12:36 PM on April 15, 2010

Best answer: Oh, another easy suggestion: walk to the back of the classroom and teach there. Don't let them turn their desks around (or don't acknowledge that this is an option). Students generally won't surf the internet if you can see their screens.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:38 PM on April 15, 2010

In the last, oh, seven years or so, in EVERY SINGLE CLASS that I've taught, and EVERY SINGLE CLASS that I've attended, no matter the subject, the lecturer, or the university, students are online and/or texting. It is 100% unavoidable these days.

I have attended classes within the last 7 years and this is simply not true. In large-ish class sizes, I could see it being true, but when with a small enough class size this does not happen all the time, and depending on how small could even be the exception rather than the rule.
posted by juv3nal at 12:44 PM on April 15, 2010

I've been teaching for almost 25 years. I've taught all ages, from two-year-olds through people in the nineties. It took me a few years, but I found that the best way to teach is to rid the classroom of power dynamics. By "the best way," I mean two things: least stressful and most conducive to learning.

There really is a recommendation at the end of this. Sorry that what follows is so long, but I think the issues involved are more complex than they might seem on the surface.

I'll explain why I think power-dynamics have no place in the classroom, but before I do, I'll go over the four reasons why it's hard to get rid of them:

1) Because sometimes you need them for safety and/or stopping chaos. Safety is really only a problem when you're teaching children, so I'll say no more about it here. Chaos stops people from learning. So I would never allow anyone to play a computer game in my classroom, if that game involved keyboard pounding and sounds, because the "chaos" from that would hinder other students from learning and distract me from teaching.

So I DO allow power-dynamics in this case and this case only. I forbid people from disturbing others. I am 100% up-front (with myself and my students) about my dictatorial stance on this matter. I explain why I'm doing it and I do it. But I understand it's the exception to the rule.

2) Because my ego doesn't want to let go. If I drop all power dynamics, I am no longer special. That's hard to give up.

3) Because students expect it. Most students are young. They grew up with mommy and daddy in charge; then their school teachers were in charge; and they transfer that expectation to me.

Even older students do this, because they've been taught that when you go to school, the teacher is the boss. I've had students who are twenty years older than me ask my permission to go to the bathroom. It's embarrassing as hell. I don't ever want anyone to ask my permission to pee. But such is the power of life-long conditioning.

4) It's just the way school traditionally works. Traditionally, teachers are in charge and students are subordinate to them. Almost no one questions this overtly (there's plenty of passive-aggressive questioning of it. See this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1WC6hNTONg, which is one of the most sane things I've ever seen about teaching and parenting). It needs to be questioned, because the traditional mode, especially when combined with 21st-Century values about personal freedom and independence, leads to tension and students not learning. But it's hard to fight traditions -- even bad ones.

A sub-issue to tradition is the Should Syndrome. It occurs when teachers say things like, "yes, well, students SHOULD pay attention" or "students SHOULD show respect." I'm not going to argue with those statements, but shoulds are meaningless. Some students DON'T pay attention, and some students DON'T respect the teacher. It's so easy to get indignant about what people SHOULD do rather than trying to solve the problem.

Here's why power dynamics are bad:

1) They distract the class away from the subject, which is whatever the class is about. The class, instead, becomes about a teacher trying to enforce rules and students trying to follow them, thwart them or get around them. Of course, that's not always the case. Sometimes you get lucky and the students have no problem with the rules. Then you can move forward as if the rules didn't even exist. But you can't count on this.

(Note: there's a "positive" version of a rule-breaker. It's a rule-follower. When a classroom is about rules, some students thrive by being "little angels." They learn less about the subject than they do about pleasing-the-teacher, and they get positive reinforcements for doing so.)

2) You, as a teacher, have constant stress (as made apparent by this thread) about enforcing the rules.

3) Students have constant stress about rules they don't like or about classmates who are breaking the rules.

4) Have you ever read any Transactional Analysis (TA). It's a dated, flawed form of psychotherapy that contains some interesting, useful ideas. At it's core, it posits that humans have three core states or personas: parent, adult and child. A parent is a boss (maybe a benign one; maybe not); an adult is a individual human being who isn't in charge of anyone else or under anyone else's sway; a child is a subordinate who may or may not chafe against his boss.

In TA, a single person can take on all these roles at different times, depending on the situation.

Many relationships fail, because people relate to each other in an imbalanced way. This sort of relationship is doomed to be pathological:
YOU             STUDENT
Parent-\        Parent
Adult    \       Adult
Child      \---- Child
By setting yourself up as a boss with rules, you are saying "I am the parent and you are the child. And, as the child, you will get in trouble if you break the rules." Once you cast people as children, they will act like children. They will resent being bossed around and act-out. If you think "they should be more mature" or "they should respect authority," see The Should Syndrome, above.

This also doesn't work:
YOU             STUDENT
Parent-\        Parent
Adult    \----- Adult
Child             Child
In fact, it's worse. It's a sort of "we're all grown ups here" lie, in which one of the grown ups is more powerful than the others. It's unstable and the students either switch to parent mode (unlikely), which means that two parents (student and teacher) will overtly duke it out for authority, or (more likely) they fall back into child mode, and act out passive-aggressively.

Here's the goal you should shoot for:
YOU             STUDENT
Parent          Parent
Adult -------- Adult
Child            Child
Only then can REAL learning happen. When an adult talks to another adult, it's a real conversation. Time is not wasted on power dynamics, ego, stress and resentment.

Left to their own devices, most students will not opt for this sort of relationship (see above, when I mention 60-year-olds who ask permission to pee). They don't come to class expecting to be treated like adults, because none of their teachers in the past treated them that way. So even if you're an adult teacher, they come in primed for you to be a parent and immediately go into child mode.

As a teacher, it's your job to be an adult and treat your students as adults (whether they act like adults or not). It's your job, because adult-to-adult communication is what leads to learning. Other modes lead to rule-following and rule-breaking.

I refused to give my elderly student permission to go the bathroom. That's not my permission to give. Adults get to go to the bathroom when they want to. Using non-condescending language, I told him that.

Note that you will encounter a few students who think of themselves as adults. As far as they are concerned, they paid to take your class. They have the right to listen to what they want to listen to and ignore what they want to ignore. It's fine if you don't share that value, but acknowledge that it is a real value some people have, even if you think it's wrong. You can't prove to them it's wrong. You can accept that they have it or you can fight with them.

And it's not so odd -- even if it's not traditional in a school setting. Most people feel that way when they go to a restaurant. When I pay for a dinner, I'm going to eat what I want to eat and leave other food on my plate, even if that offends the chef. If I read a book, I may skip a chapter than bores me, even if that pisses off the author. Some people approach school that way. Maybe (to you) they shouldn't. (See The Should Syndrome, above.)

"But if they don't listen, they won't learn!" Okay, but if they are adults, they have the right to choose whether or not they learn.

Understand that you are just one of a long line of teachers these students have had by the time they got to your class. They are used to having boss after boss after boss. They expect you to be a boss. Some of their bosses have treated them unfairly in the past. They naturally resent that. They will take that resentment out on you if you let them. They way to stop them from doing so is to not be a boss. Don't try to be a "cool boss." They will see through that. There's no difference between a cool boss and a boss. Both are bosses. The cool boss is a boss that is also needy for attention. (See "The Office.")

Having said all that, I'm not going to tell you to just let them surf the web, even though, were it my class, that's what I'd do. (I've done it in plenty of classes. I've even suggested it to students. Sometimes I say, "I can't promise to be interesting all the time. If I veer into a topic that isn't important to you or that you already know, feel free to surf the web and rejoin the class when it is meaningful to you." I often check in with students about this. "Hey, if you've tuned out, you might want to tune back in now, because I'm going to change the subject...")

If it really bothers you, be an adult about it and treat the students like adults. How does one adult ask another adult to refrain from some sort of behavior: by asking. You ask, you explain your reasons, and -- because you're talking to an adult -- you accept the fact that they are autonomous and may, after hearing your desire, fail to do what you want. If they fail to do it, you can express your disappointment and reassert your desire. Also, it REALLY helps to not treat them like perverts -- as if their desire to surf the wen is obscene. Surely, there's part of you that can relate. (Have you ever been bored in class? Maybe you have, but you didn't act on it the way they do, but at least you can relate to the feeling.)

When a parent asks a child to stop doing something, the explanation is "because it's wrong" or "because it's disrespectful." When an adult asks another adult to stop doing something, it's because "what you're doing is causing this specific real-world problem" or because "it really bothers me." It's fine if you want them to stop because what they're doing just bothers you. Just be honest about that. That's YOUR issue, and you're asking them a favor -- to help you with your issue. Don't make them feel like they are bad. (Don't do this even if you think they are bad. It will backfire on you. When you tell people they are bad, they get defensive and act out, usually passive-aggressively. And they certainly don't learn.)

One of the best teachers I've ever had hated it when people came late to class. He had the respect for us to express his needs to us in an adult-to-adult manner:

"Hey, I know it's hard to always be on time. Believe me, even though I hate lateness, sometimes something comes up in my life, and I'm late to important things. But I think it's really disruptive when people walk in late. It distracts everyone else as the latecomer makes noise, finds a seat, etc. It definitely distracts me, and I have a hard time teaching when I'm distracted.

"So I'm going to ask you not to come to class late. Clocks aren't exact, so five-minutes-late is okay, but please don't come later than that. If you find you're running later than that, just don't come. I promise I will not get mad at you. If it happens over and over, I might have to lower your grade, but I won't get mad. Things happen. But don't come late, okay? Thanks."

It was amazing! There was never a problem with lateness. Whereas in most of my other classes, people walked in late all the time and the teachers would just get pissed off and chastise the latecomers. The chastisements didn't work. People still came late. But simply by treating his students like adults, that great teacher got what he wanted.
posted by grumblebee at 12:50 PM on April 15, 2010 [41 favorites]

I just want to say that while I was taking university level classes, I took notes on paper. With that in mind, I think whoever it was that said if kids aren't continuously typing it's clear that they're surfing the web is wrong, sorry. I didn't continuously have something of interest to write in my notes. I can't imagine that would be much different for kids that type far quicker than I could write. (Unless of course you're expecting that the typing kids are transcribing your entire lecture.)

Also, I got bored in lectures all the time, and it was just a matter of bad timing that I didn't have wifi and a laptop to surf the web or look at facebook for the majority of the boring lectures. Instead, I literally passed notes to my friends, doodled all over my notebook, made lists and schedules of upcoming work/projects and other such unrelated things. Just because you can SEE the students not paying attention better now with the laptops doesn't mean this is a NEW problem. And when I got caught passing notes back and forth with classmates, the professor was smart enough to single us out and embarrass us for that lecture. However, it never prevented us from passing notes or talking/whispering in a later lecture.

Bottom line? Some kids don't show respect the way *you* want them to. No matter how much you threaten them with tests, bad grades, or embarrassment. It doesn't mean that they don't/won't learn something from your class. And that's more the point than anything else.

All that having been said, please for the love of pete, call out the kid looking at bikini clad girls on facebook. Loudly. And then ask to see them in your office hours and throw the book at them - if that's something you can based on the university guidelines, and I hope it is.
posted by kirstk at 1:13 PM on April 15, 2010

It is your class. You are the authority. Tell the little jerks that your way or the highway--computers off.

But. Your actual authority is limited to speaking words to them, and lowering their grade. You can't touch them. You can't actually make them do anything, you can't actually prevent them from doing anything. Unlike a primary or secondary education teacher, you are not in loco parentis.

So only tell them that it's your way or the highway if you are for real and no shit willing to call security or campus police, wait for them to appear, and ask them to physically remove someone for using a laptop.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:27 PM on April 15, 2010

So only tell them that it's your way or the highway if you are for real and no shit willing to call security or campus police, wait for them to appear, and ask them to physically remove someone for using a laptop.

I just nodded my head so vigorously it fell off and rolled under the sofa. YES! A bluffed threat is about as dangerous as a squirt gun. So either follow the advice of those of us who are saying "treat them as adults who have the right to tune out if they want to" or be an authoritarian, but if you choose the latter route, only make promises you can keep -- or you'll be completely impotent the first time someone calls your bluff.

By the way, the "surfing/texting IS distracting to fellow students" argument is a side track. I get distracted by pens and pencils moving on paper (seriously). Okay, maybe I'm a freak that way. But I also get distracted by girls wearing miniskirts. That's pretty common for people of my gender. Are you going to insist all the girls where pants? And what point do I have to deal with my own attention problems?

It's reasonable for me to expect a teacher to stop one of my classmates from talking on his phone or throwing paper airplanes at me. It's not reasonable for me to expect my teacher to stop my classmates from doing silent things that require almost no motion.

I'm really disturbed by the idea that I should have the right to complain about a student next to me looking at Facebook, but I shouldn't have the right to complain if that same student is using his computer to take notes. At that point, I'm not complaining that he's typing on a computer -- I'm complaining about the content of what's on his screen. We're getting really deep into personal values, e.g. I happen to be distracted by someone who is less interested in the class than I am. That's getting way too close to thought-policing for comfort.

To those who talk about the "group experience of being in a class," I again would say this is also a side-track. What if laptops are banned and someone is doodling? Surely they are tuning out too -- just in a low-tech way. Should doodling be banned because it's destructive to the group experience? What about the student who sits there and looks grumpy? Should we throw him out? In most classes, group ethos is requested but not required. Once you start forcing people to participate, you get into "you will read this book AND you will enjoy it" territory.

I don't even learn best by participating. I am shy. If I'm forced to be part of the group, I will get so self conscious that I won't learn anything. I learn best by being able to digest things in my own way, in my own time. And sometimes tuning out even helps me -- especially if the teacher is going over something I already know. At times like that, I get really bored and antsy. If I'm not surfing the web, I'm surfing the web in my mind, and I'm sure that shows on my face. If I worry about "looking interested" so as to not offend the teacher, I again become self-conscious and the class becomes an exercise in etiquette rather than a learning experience about the class's subject.
posted by grumblebee at 1:49 PM on April 15, 2010 [8 favorites]

Best answer: A lot of people here seem to think that being patriarchal and having lots of rules is being disrespectful to the students. It's not.

When I first started teaching, I had the attitude: "these undergraduates are grown-ups now, they don't want or need me to push them around, they can make their own decisions to get what they want out of university." But then a more experienced professor pointed out to me (correctly, I think) that this was something lazy teachers told themselves so that they wouldn't need to feel responsible for their students' failures. Most college students can vote, but they're still really young and irresponsible. But it's not just that they're young: it's that they're human, and being human, they are weak-willed.

The internet is massively addictive. If I'm watching a movie and I have my laptop open near me, I will invariably check my e-mail, and probably check Metafilter, and I'll gradually lose track of the movie, no matter how engaging the movie is. So I make sure that I don't have my laptop nearby if I start a movie that I want to watch. It's like Odysseus tying himself to the mast to prevent himself from diving into the sea after the Sirens. Am I treating myself as a non-autonomous agent by recognizing that I'm subject to akrasia? I guess so... but it doesn't seem like I'm disrespecting myself.

I think students know that they shouldn't be doing the crossword or surfing the internet or whatever. They know that it's impacting their learning and that it's inconsiderate. They just can't help it. Having a policy that ties your students to the mast is something that their rational selves might very well agree to (in the Original Position, to cop a Rawlsian phrase). There is nothing wrong with outlawing websurfing and phones if you think it is for their best.

Here's a little evidence for the idea that students would ideally agree to a policy outlawing websurfing. In the last few classes I've taught, I've set a really draconian default attendance policy. But I also give students the opportunity to opt out of this policy and suggest whatever other attendance policy they want. I tell them: "this attendance policy is here for your own benefit. It's here to make sure that you will pull yourself out of bed in the morning. You are the best judge of your own willpower. Set whatever attendance policy will benefit you the most." And it turns out that most students like giving themselves a tough attendance policy. They know they're lazy. Some of them even made the policy tougher (I think they were just showing off to me though). I made a harsh policy that was opt-out, for the sorts of reasons that Cass Sunstein talks about in Nudge, but I know of other professors who have no policy by default and allow students to opt into one.

You could try, at the beginning of a course, doing something similar with a policy regarding phones and laptops. Present the online world as a temptation that all of you, students and professor, need to fight against together. Give them the option of banning phones and websurfing and crosswords, and let them set the punishment. I bet they will make it harsh. I think I might try this in the class I'm teaching this summer.
posted by painquale at 1:51 PM on April 15, 2010 [11 favorites]

Just ask students to sit in the back of the classroom if they want to use the internet. Problem solved. It just seems egotistical to think that everything you say is incredibly important and that students should hang on your every word. It's up to them if they want to listen and learn.

It seems draconian to try to force them off their laptops through punishment. It reminds of grade school teachers who insist kids ask permission to use the bathroom. Ridiculous! In the work world, people do lots of things teachers would consider rude - eating at their desks, leaving a meeting to go to the bathroom, etc... Meetings get dull sometimes so I text people. It's not a detriment to my career to use something to distract me in dull meetings. Also, it doesn't seem rude to me. As long as they aren't being disruptive with idiotic giggling, then does it really matter?
posted by parakeetdog at 1:52 PM on April 15, 2010

painquale, that was a great post, even though it was also self-contradictory (even when it was, it was so well-written, I enjoyed it). But I want to note a couple of things:

A lot of people here seem to think that being patriarchal and having lots of rules is being disrespectful to the students. It's not.

That makes it sound like you're going to argue for hard and fast rules. But then you go onto explain how you came up with an opt-in attendance system. It wasn't hard-and-fast at all. In fact, though I disagree with the statement of yours that I quoted, above, I think your opt-in attendance rule is great teaching. It treats the students as adults, giving them an option to partake (or not) in a system that you fully explain, including an explanation for why you think they should opt in.

The OP can certainly say, "In my experience, the students who surf the web during class don't learn as much as the ones who don't, but I know the web is enticing. To help those who really want to pay attention but have trouble doing so, I have a plan. If you opt in, I will deduct half a letter grade each time I see you on the web. Once you're in, you're in, so consider it carefully. But it's totally up to you, and I won't think less of you if you don't opt in. I know everyone is different and some people can learn and surf the web at the same time. But if you think you may have a problem with focus, my offer stands. Let me know at the beginning of class tomorrow."

it's that they're human, and being human, they are weak-willed.

Well, if they are adults then this is THEIR problem. You can offer them solutions and tools, but if you respect them as adults, you don't try to force those tools on them. And it looks like you don't.

When I first started teaching, I had the attitude: "these undergraduates are grown-ups now, they don't want or need me to push them around, they can make their own decisions to get what they want out of university." But then a more experienced professor pointed out to me (correctly, I think) that this was something lazy teachers told themselves so that they wouldn't need to feel responsible for their students' failures.

Teachers feed themselves that line of shit all the time, using any excuse. It's not my fault, because they were surfing the web; it's not my fault, because they were staring out the window; it's not my fault, because their previous teachers didn't teach them the foundation they needed before coming to my class, etc.

It's always bullshit.

As a teacher, your job is to help the students learn. If they don't learn, you have failed. Which isn't to say you should beat yourself up about it. In any tough job, you will fail quite often. Failure is a tool. You ask yourself why you failed WITHOUT BLAMING ANYONE ELSE and try to figure out what you can do better next time.

I was disturbed when the OP claimed that he couldn't always be interesting, because some of the material is more dense or boring than others. That may be true, but it's not the sort of thing a teacher should be saying to himself. When you identify a tough bit of subject matter, you work extra hard on making it interesting and learnable. Have you tried teaching it via some sort of activity or experiment; have you tried visuals; have you tried debate; have you tried discussion... have you tried EVERYTHING?

Maybe there are some things that can never be made interesting, but I refuse to take that defeatist attitude. The challenge is always to make it interesting! As soon as you say it can't be done, you'll quit trying.

As soon as you quit trying, you quit being a teacher. You become a guy in a classroom. Not a teacher. Teachers fail. Then they work at it until they stop failing. Then they succeed. Then they fail again. Rinse and repeat.
posted by grumblebee at 2:09 PM on April 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

Probably a terrible idea, but in an info security class at my school there was a guest speaker who ran a packet sniffer as part of his presentation and told everyone in the class the password of a student who was on Facebook the whole time. That seems like it might discourage the activity.
posted by dagnyscott at 2:10 PM on April 15, 2010

Though students who pay Brown's tuition and go there do have a reasonable expectation of a certain quality of educational experience which, in my opinion, should include classes that are well-managed and where most students are not surfing the internet rather than participating.

We're getting into personal values here. I would say that a student doesn't have a reasonable expectation of an "educational experience," because I don't know what that means. I DO think a student has the right to be taught a subject by his teacher.

I am going to bow out now. I am veering into off-topic stuff that is just pushing my values about teaching. Anyone who wants to discuss this more with me can take it to memail.

I hope the OP finds peace and challenge in the classroom.
posted by grumblebee at 2:15 PM on April 15, 2010

Best answer: This whole thread is a good argument for online education as a substitute for face-to-face classes. The logistic of getting a large group of people in the same room at the same time to listen to a lecture are tricky. And, if it truly is a lecture in the traditional sense, it could just as easily be a web page, or a podcast, or a video.

The students you describe are being rude and disrespectful. And, in as much as school is training for "real life" in the world of work, they're getting away with nonsense that no employer would tolerate. Paying for the course (or, more accurately, having parents who are willing to pay for a course) isn't an entitlement to distract fellow students or the instructor. Discrete surfing and texting shouldn't be a problem. But when it hits the nudge-and-giggle stage, it's already gone way too far.

If you care about this, there are several potential solutions, though, as others have noted, this is a real problem in academia right now, so I don't claim to have all the answers. In fact, I teach online now, for the most part, so I'm don't have to deal with this sort of nonsense. But, my two cents:

1) Draw a hard line, from day one. You don't have to be unreasonable. Just make it clear that this isn't an online class. This is a face-to-face class. It's not cool to distract others with irrelevant crap on your monitor, or giggly outbursts at your interweb exchanges with classmates and others. Certain sites should be banned outright (you know what they are). You came to teach. If they didn't come to learn, they're in the wrong place. You're not a clown; You're not there to amuse them. Learning isn't always fun. Tell them straight up that you don't have the production budget to compete with MTV.

2) Add accountability in any reasonable way you can. Let there be quizzes (online ones, even) which ask questions about content from the lectures. Make said quizzes enough of a percentage of the overall grade that blowing them off isn't an option.

3) Call on people, at random, with specific questions. Put their names on index cards and pull at random so you don't seem to be targeting particular people.

4) Do breakout sessions to discuss (with specific questions, if necessary) topics and have groups present to the rest of the class.

The alternative is not to care about it, or to cordon off the slackers in such a way that they're not a distraction to the students who want to pay attention, or to give up on F2F instruction and admit that this should be an online class.
posted by wheat at 2:16 PM on April 15, 2010

Best answer: Well, I have a different take. Connectedness is not going away, and I think it should be encouraged, not discouraged. Look at k8t's answers here, she used social networking to be a value-add to the overall conversation. One idea would be to setup a shared mind-map that the students could add to, sort of as a real time, collective notes for the class.

I think, as some others have mentioned, that the criteria should not be are the student's focused on the class, the criteria should be that they are respectful of the classroom norms and do not interfere with others.

Also, I think it's fine to set aside certain time frames where you expect full attention, but this should be reserved for a complex or confusing point.

I can see so many ways to turn the computers to an advantage that all can share and benefit from, and I'm surprised that I haven't seen more comments suggesting this direction.
posted by forforf at 2:33 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

A close relative of mine was a professor at Brown. When I was an undergraduate there, I heard people saying his class was ridiculously easy, with few writing assignments or other things to be graded. He was seriously bummed out, but pulled himself together and decided that the next semester he'd require frequent, short papers. Two months into the new semester, he told me how remarkable his current students were: they participated actively in discussion, they were insightful, their written work was excellent, more of them came to office hours. He was amazed. At the end of the semester, the student's evaluations of his teaching were unusually positive. I believe that more people were actually doing the reading, so that they could then write the one- and two-page papers.

You could be the most interesting teacher on campus, but if the students aren't reading and preparing, they're going to be bored and passive. Discipline in the classroom isn't about how the students act -- discipline is engaging with the material. I got that tidbit from the same professor.
posted by wryly at 2:35 PM on April 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

By the way, the "surfing/texting IS distracting to fellow students" argument is a side track. I get distracted by pens and pencils moving on paper (seriously). Okay, maybe I'm a freak that way. But I also get distracted by girls wearing miniskirts. That's pretty common for people of my gender. Are you going to insist all the girls where pants? And what point do I have to deal with my own attention problems?

I don't feel this is a "side track" at all, grumblebee. As a teacher, my concern was that my classroom be the sort of environment I felt was most conducive to teaching the material at hand. For me, this is a space where people are participants are respectful (not just of me, but of anyone who's presenting/speaking--I really can't understand the person who said upthread that they'd kick their students off a computer if a classmate was giving a presentation but not while they, as a teacher, were presenting material), engaged, and participatory. In order to do so, I have to minimize major and blatant distractions--within reason. Clearly, it would be unreasonable to ask girls to wear pants, and it would be a violation of many of our social mores. Asking someone to put a cell phone away would not.

And I feel like the pretty ridiculous slippery slope that you're trying to lead us down is a lot more clear if you use common sense. If a device (or, hell, an object--I'd say crossword puzzles or comic books or outside reading or even a bucket of KFC could count) is being used in a manner that's clearly not related to pedagogy or learning, then it shouldn't be allowed. Why? Because they sent a very clear message to the speaker that you're not listening. It's a gross and blatant message, and one that students are often unaware that they're sending. Hell, my students usually seemed to be laboring under the impression that they were invisible. So we, as teachers, have to help them a little bit. That's okay. In turn, I'll give my students a hand if they're giving a presentation and there's some dude asleep at the front. It's not just about my ego trip.

You might say, then, that it's unfair that you can get away with writing a short story or a grocery list on paper but not get away with playing Robot Unicorn Attack on your iPhone. In order to be reasonable teachers, though, we can't feasibly ban pencils and paper--that would cause back-sliding on the effectiveness of classroom management, and impede more students than it would help them. Hell, I'll even let students get away with doodling a lot of the time. But if a student, say, brought in a watercolor set and started painting? Get out of here. That's unreasonable. Some teachers might feel differently than I do about the usefulness of, say, laptops in class--they're certainly more useful in certain subjects than others. That's okay. But I think it's up to the professor to create the sort of space they feel is most conducive to their teaching style. I think that trying to create a moral panic by claiming those who disagree with you are being thought police is, well, unreasonable.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:58 PM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

The same way you stop them from doodling, not showing up, whispering to their neighbor and a dozen other things that may or may not indicate that they care about the words that are coming out of your mouth.
posted by Brian Puccio at 3:14 PM on April 15, 2010

I see lots of really good answers have been favorited. If you want a technological solution: run a microwave. WiFi and microwaves are in the same frequency. Microwave ovens always kick me off the net at home and in offices. No one ever seems to figure this out.
posted by jdfan at 3:14 PM on April 15, 2010

You don't go to college to learn to respect the teacher, it's something you're supposed to already have learned.
posted by Wood at 3:24 PM on April 15, 2010

Best answer: Google Wave can also be a great group collaboration/shared notes tool. Learn Google Wave and encourage students to start a Wave for each lecture. You'll be seen as cutting edge, and they'll be engaged in the class and not on Facebook.
posted by micawber at 3:33 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I haven't taught since before the internet, so I haven't faced this problem, but I sure faced the problem of students not paying attention, and it's a killer. Above a certain class size, it may be unavoidable, but it's worth doing whatever you can to convince students it's in their best interest and that of their fellow students to either pay attention or at a minimum not be ostentatious about goofing off. And all you "be interesting" people are full of shit; no matter how interesting the lecturer is, there are going to be students who don't give a damn, and something has to be done about them. The classroom is not a playground, it's a place for learning. If you don't want to learn, go do something else.

> Like a lot of millennials, I think and work best when multitasking.

This is not true, as has been said above. All of you who think it is are fooling yourselves.
posted by languagehat at 3:44 PM on April 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

if he was in my section, trust me - he would no longer have an A

Please, PLEASE don't be this TA. I'm an undergrad, and my Chem TA brags all the time about how much harder his section is than everyone else's and how "none of your students would be doing as well in my class as they are in yours". What he doesn't realize is that his students absolutely resent him. It feels like he's going out of his way to make the content way more difficult than it needs to be, even more so than it is in the actual class, just so that he can brag about how much tougher his section is. I'm not going to say that you're the same way, but just that phrase conveys exactly the same idea to me.

Also, I don't agree with those that are advocating banning laptops outright. When I'm in one of the classes that I use my laptop in, (all but one) I have 4 things open: either the Word document I'm taking notes in or the Powerpoint that I'm taking notes on, Stickies to record any reminders about the next class/details about upcoming assignments, Sunbird to enter in any assignments or due dates given in class, and a browser window with Blackboard open so I can download any assignments/readings that the professor says they've put up. It's how I keep organized. I don't surf the internet, other than checking my Blackboard email if I'm expecting something once or twice during class, or entering in hyperlinks to Wikipedia for concepts/terms that I didn't quite understand, to check on later. In classes where I don't use my laptop, I have issues with keeping track of assignments (I have hand issues that cause my hand to get cramped if I write too much/too fast) because I'm trying to scribble out notes to keep up with the professor and don't have time to pull out my planner. You didn't include how many students in the class were using their computers to take notes- I have a hard time believing that with that many students, not a single one was taking notes. Not all computer-wielding students are just trying to distract themselves from lecture. I can type notes without taking my eyes off of the lecturer or their slides, and I pay a lot more attention with my computer.

Some of the ideas above are HORRIBLE ideas. If you call a student out about something and then grill him for 20 minutes on that same thing, you're simultaneously embarassing the hell out of them, disengaging the other students in the lecture, and leading everyone involved to FEAR the teacher instead of RESPECTING the teacher. If that's what you're going for, then...whatever floats your boat. Yes, call people out if they're being blatantly disrespectful/inappropriate, but don't dwell on it. There's a big difference between calling people out and humiliating them.

What I have seen successfully implemented: having really frequent quizzes (even if they're just questions on a clicker so you don't have to grade them, per se- but don't make them CRAZY hard, not everyone understands a lecture the first time, even if they pay attention), asking people to only sit in the front if they're actually paying attention/not surfing the internet, having "laptop down" periods of class discussion/participation, and banning laptops *only in classes where they aren't beneficial*- for example, there's no reason to use a computer in a chemistry class where you're drawing lots of diagrams, but there is a reason in a psych class where you need to have every word of the powerpoints shown in class.
posted by kro at 5:42 PM on April 15, 2010

Mod note: Trying to be hands-off here, but you need to stop the multi-task derail or take it to metatalk pelase
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:49 PM on April 15, 2010

painquale, that was a great post, even though it was also self-contradictory (even when it was, it was so well-written, I enjoyed it).

I can see why you thought it was self-contradictory, but I don't think it was. An argument for the use of opt-in and opt-out systems on some occasions is not an argument against outright legislation on other occasions. In fact, one reason I appealed to the fact that students often choose to opt into harsh policies was to provide evidence that it is sometimes acceptable for the professor to mandate policies from the get-go. After all, the tendency of students choose harsh penalties shows that, by and large, they know that their later selves will be weak, and they know that it is rational to bind the actions of their later selves. They agree that it is best for them to restrict their autonomy. Once you've gotten that far, it is not a far jump for the professor to restrict the autonomy of the students whenever it is in their best interests.

The professor has to mandate some things. It's not plausible to have students vote on every aspect of a course when it first starts for practical reasons, and in addition, the professor has more information about what the best course policies are. I'm teaching logic right now, and I assign a lot of homework. There's a sense in which this doesn't treat the students as adults. I could have just suggested problem sets for students to practice, given feedback to the students who decided to submit some work, and let the entire course grade rest on the final. Adults are fully responsible for their behaviors, right? So by legislating that the students have to do the homework, instead of just assuming that they will take my suggestion about how much work is necessary, I am being condescending to them.

But this is silly. I know how much work the students need to do to gain a mastery of the material... it's a lot. And I know they won't do it unless forced. And they know they won't do it unless forced, so they accept that I can make demands of them. They give me the privilege of making stipulations at the beginning of the course if I judge that it's in their best interests. If I gave the students the ability to invent their own grading system at the beginning of the course, there's no way it'd be as onerous as the one they currently have; it wouldn't be sufficiently onerous. This is one case in which the opt-in system would not work. But it is justified for the same reason that the opt-in system is: in both cases, the students and professor devise a system of rules will most easily facilitate learning, and when it is appropriate, the student cedes control of rule creation to the professor.
posted by painquale at 5:49 PM on April 15, 2010

Best answer: At the beginning of the semester you could show them one of the many awareness tests that demonstrate how hard it is to pay attention to multiple things at once. The risk is that a fair number of your students will be able to do the task successfully and not get the point.
posted by lilac girl at 6:13 PM on April 15, 2010

University is where young people can finally begin to learn to be adults because people will treat them like adults. Even when this is a bad idea in the short term. You, by the sound of it, want to keep on treating them like kids (your question is figuratively how to make them eat their vegetables, because vegetables are good for them), which will actually retard their development, even though it might have a positive short-term effect on grades. Do what is best for the students - tell them that providing they do NOT disrupt other students, they are welcome to stunt themselves and even fail themselves via whatever distractions are their poison of choice.

It's a lecture hall, not a classroom. Treat them like adults, because that is what they need. The education provided of your institution should be more than just the lecture topics. Courtesy and etiquette issues should be the extent of your foray against their distractions.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:32 PM on April 15, 2010

Just a datapoint here, but there are some classes where I regularly attend and browse the web because I prefer to learn the material on my own/in office hours/with friends. I've not "squandered my education" or anything so dramatic, and it isn't a veiled criticism of the lecturer's competence.
posted by anonymuk at 7:38 PM on April 15, 2010

I'm a college student who actually uses their laptop to take notes (no, really!). I actually disable my wifi card during class to prolong the battery. I have no need for wifi. All I need is the PowerPoint file and Anki (the program I use to take notes).

One professor has this rule, and it seems to work well: You can use a laptop in class, but you have to ask his permission (just once), and you have to sit in the first three rows. If he catches you doing something you're not supposed to be doing during lecture, your laptop privileges are revoked. It seems to work (I guess; I'm that guy that always sits on the front row, so I can't tell what other students are doing behind me).

Actually I started sitting on the front row of every class because of this issue. Facebook and solitaire seem to be de rigueur for classes. I find myself distracted by other people's surfing, so I just sit in the front, where it's not an issue for me.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:01 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Honestly, half surfing the internet during class helps me concentrate. I had a couple profs in law school who made us write our notes so no laptops and I nearly fell asleep so many times. As in it was almost physically painful to stay awake in my 9 am class and I never fall asleep during the day. And trust me in these classes I was absorbing nothing. 2 hours that early in the morning without even being able to get up and walk around once an hour is really hard, especially when you studied until 10 or 11 the night before and had been pulling 12 hour days all week.

Of course I'm the kind of person who prefers to be doing multiple things at once (except for possibly research and writing), so I might be an exception. But I think it's a mistake to assume that someone isn't listening to the lecture and taking copious notes while also perusing the NY Times.

If you want to make sure people are engaged then use the Socratic method. People will pay attention AND do all the assigned reading, which I think is far more important than not surfing the internet during class.
posted by whoaali at 9:26 PM on April 15, 2010

It's way late for my two cents but I think K8t had awesome suggestions above. The tone of the activities she suggests is collaborative, with-it, warm, responsive, respectful and acknowledging of the exigencies of teaching [no matter what era - we've all been distracted brats in the classroom, even before the internets]. I assess teachers/educators and years of observation and practice have helped me see that 'with-it-ness' and warm responsiveness are the core of a successful teaching persona. No matter what the subject matter, time of day, age of learner - you care what they learn, and how they learn and you are in touch with your learners' styles of learning. If they are not paying attention this is not the time to shame, degrade and bully no matter how instinctual the desire to 'win' is. It is the time to think, like
K8t, and others have about ways to work with the grain of technology, or to compromise its use and presence in your lecture environments.
posted by honey-barbara at 3:11 AM on April 16, 2010

I am a former Brown undergrad. For what it's worth, I agree with this:

At the end of the semester, the student's evaluations of his teaching were unusually positive. I believe that more people were actually doing the reading, so that they could then write the one- and two-page papers.

I had took a course like this at Brown (maybe even with wryly's uncle!) and I was completely focused during both the lecture and my discussion section.

If there is information that students need for the course that they can only get in lecture, they will pay attention. Otherwise, I'm not sure what else you can do in a large lecture class. In a smaller class/classroom, breaking into groups to do exercises or discussions can help a lot, but it sounds like that might not be possible in your situation.
posted by puffin at 5:18 AM on April 16, 2010

I confess I did actually read through every post in this thread. All I can say is: wow.

I'm primarily a writer, but I make much of my living speaking, and last year I wrote a book called Confessions of a Public Speaker , based on my experience giving 100s of lectures (including teaching college courses), but also some serious research into both the science of attention, as well as the history of lectures, and teaching, and universities.

First, there is a strong academic argument that lectures are an inappropriate teaching method much of the time - it's just that it's the only method many professors know or are willing to try. Bligh's What's The Use of Lectures? clearly documents the research supporting this claim, and it's bizarre so few people have ever heard of this book. It is a must-read for any TA or Professor or Academic department head, as it swiftly summarizes the limitations of lecturing and explores the alternatives, all based on well documented studies and research. It's a well written but academic summation of lectures and their alternatives.

Second, most people who lecture are awful - the bar is low - and in the case of professors, they are lecturing to people who are captives. The feedback loop in most universities is weak or broken regarding presentation skills, and in some cases, regarding teaching skills altogether. Many professors in many universities (there are of course many exceptions too) have never been trained to teach, yet have an arrogance about how good they are, and deep faith in untested theories about how it is supposed to be done, theories based heavily on their own experiences as students. It's fair to say most people who lecture professionally are nowhere near as good at lecturing as they think they are, and never put themselves in a situation where it's possible to discover that gap.

Third, before anyone makes claims about "this generation" the question remains: among the teachers in any school, in any era, some will do a better job of keeping students attention than others - how do these teachers do it? And can they teach those skills / attitudes / behaviors to the other teachers? Even if students have brain implants straight into the Matrix, some teachers will do better than others and that's the framework any teacher should be starting from.

Fundamentally this problem is ageless. The web is not going away in the same way, despite teachers wishes, daydreamable windows, chewing gum, and passing notes, persisted. It has always been very hard to keep the attention of any group of people, at any age, at any time. And the people who have tended to be successful in overcoming these challenges are the ones who either 1) develop true teaching and persuasive skills, or 2) partner with their students in finding a mutually beneficial solution, rather than stumbling backwards into inflicting a fantasy of obedience on them.
posted by Berkun at 8:29 AM on April 16, 2010 [6 favorites]

Two other two gems I found related to this topic are:

Brain Rules, by John Medina - There are many pop books on brain science these days, but this was the one most focused on attention as applied to the student/teacher dynamic.

What the best college teachers do, Ken Bain - The author interviewed professors, focusing on those most popular with students, or most successful as teachers, and offers a distillation of what he uncovered. The book's flaw is it is not prescriptive, but it does make clear the traits better teachers at the college level have, how those teachers think about what they do and the methods they use, and on that alone gives a framework for any TA or professor to compare against their own.
posted by Berkun at 8:50 AM on April 16, 2010

Re: Making things interesting. Please for the love of X do not read power point slides, muchless that you have distributed as handouts! Maybe some folks need to hear what's in front of them to learn it, but nothing makes me check out faster.
posted by ShadePlant at 12:02 PM on April 16, 2010

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