Usage of electronic devices has been causing disputes between teachers and students for the last few years. Technological advances allow having immediate access to vast amounts of information or keeping constantly in touch with people, even when you are supposed to be busy with class work.
More and more students now prefer laptops to paper for note taking, mostly because it is convenient, handy, and environmentally friendly. In an anonymous survey among AAU students, 32 people took part, 26 percent claiming they use a laptop in class.
As one said, “I can access my notes anywhere (I use Google docs to take notes), I can also make easy changes to the document, add things whenever I want, and, finally, print them if I need.” However, dealing with devices inevitably leads to multi-tasking and some students are easily distracted by social networks.
According to the survey, 29 percent of respondents believe that the teacher will never know if someone is distracted from actual note taking, as long as you can pretend you’re making notes and the lecturer is unable to see your screen. It’s a simple matter to listen to the lecturer and type what’s said but if you suddenly realize you have forgotten to send an email to a friend, have not completed an assignment for the next class or just got bored your attention drifts and the brain is no longer able to process all the information.
An experiment by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer in April at Princeton University showed that even if typing is faster that taking notes by hand with a pen, allowing the documenting of more information, such shallow transcribing decreases retention.
Those who write their notes on paper, however, are likely to learn more. The reason is that those actions trigger different cognitive processes; hand notes are often shorter but contain personal evaluation and interpretation of material that leads to better assimilation and longer-lasting memory.
Mueller and Oppenheimer found in three experiments that students who took notes by hand outperformed laptop users on tests, even though the device users had taken down more detailed summaries. The researchers also found out that students with computers spend on average 40 percent of the lecture on work that is unrelated to the course.
AAU teachers admit that it can be hard to distinguish if a person is following the lecture or chatting on a Facebook, but eventually the trick is noticed. To a certain extent, professors tolerate such behavior and are not eager to confront students with stern demands that they switch off and tune in.
Many students claim that the main reason they are distracted is either a boring subject or teacher’s ineffective lecture style, especially when reading from the slides or delivering monotonous talks.
As AAU student Ksenia Sitnik puts it, a “three-hour class is quite a long period of time and if a teacher speaks only about a topic without asking questions or engaging into meaningful discussions he forces us to be distracted.”
On the other hand, “lectures cannot always be fun,” according to AAU teacher Duncan McLean, who does not allow note taking notes on devices. Education should not be transformed into constant entertainment, he argues, but is what students need to comprehend. “If a person is not interested in a subject, he should not come to lectures at all,” said McLean.
But this seems to partially contradict the university’s policy on attendance, which is mandatory to pass. Each course has a syllabus with a universal attachment, General Requirements and School Policies, which states that “three absences will result in a reduction of one full letter grade.” The Student Handbook has no mention the policy.
“We are at a university… and no one has to force us – it should be our decision,” said Sitnik. And many students support this, especially if it is possible to find all the lecture material in PowerPoint slides on the course web site. But student Tamar Sikharulidze counters, “I am a lazy person and the fact that I’m forced keeps me in shape to study for every single class.”
AAU’s teacher Peter Zvagulis says “I treat students as adults who are responsible for their own education.” So it is actually up to students to decide whether to pay attention or not, a decision based on their personal interests. Undoubtedly, it is impossible to hold 100 percent of the attention in a class of 25 people and to monitor whether everyone is engaged in study. But teachers have their own tricks that can awake some negligent students.
Professor of documentary photography Bjorn Steinz, during his stay in Korea, developed the technique of shooting pictures of students who occasionally fell asleep, later showing them to them. It caused a great improvement in their attitude – though he admits that at AAU he has no plans to apply similar techniques to internet surfers.
Another AAU teacher, Hsu Tzu Yi, has introduced a policy of reducing students’ grades for using electronic devices without her permission during lectures. Zvagulis in turn prefers personal dialogue with exceedingly distracted students after lectures, or grabbing attention with group discussions or direct questioning.
According to the survey, students encourage teachers to share experiences relevant to the topic, be enthusiastic, employ more discussions rather than reading slides and constantly repeating material from previous lectures and homework readings. But choices still depend on personal requirements, goals and abilities, say many students.