Our Students' Attention
Communication Arts Department
When we instructors were
students, we were all guilty of being off-task from time
to time during a class. Maybe you thought there wasn’t
any harm in jotting a note to a friend. Perhaps, in more
recent years, you stole a quick glance at Facebook
during a lull in the lecture.
No big deal.
But when I handed out an
article in class the other day for students to read
silently, I was surprised to hear a keyboard clicking
close by. I strolled over in time to see my student
hurriedly pick up her article and pretend to read, and I
quietly reminded her to stay off the Internet.
No big deal.
Not one minute after I
returned to the front of the room, I was aghast to
discover that same student had put her article back down
on the desk and was now moving the mouse around.
Either she has a lot of
gall or she thinks I’m an idiot. I wasn’t sure which, so
I decided to ask.
I should back up a bit
and explain. Being in my early-30s, and having just
recently finished my own coursework, I grew up on the
cusp of the instant-gratification generation, and I
understand that short-attention spans crave constant
stimulation. I also teach in a computer lab, where the
siren call of online distractions is hard to overcome.
What differentiates me
from them (aside from years of experience and too much
education) is a level of respect that seems to be going
to the wayside. As I spend too much time asking the same
students repeatedly to stay on task, the gap between our
versions of acceptable classroom behavior grows.
So when I asked my class
for some anonymous feedback regarding online goofing-off
in class, what I got from several students was what I
suspected, yet I was still shocked to see it in writing:
“I don’t care if I get
And the gap widens…
When I was a student, the
main deterrent for goofing off online was the prospect
of getting caught and the subsequent embarrassment of
getting called out by the professor. But when that
bogeyman is no longer scary, what do we as teachers have
I know you’re thinking
the answer is easy – why not just make them shut their
computers down? As I said, I am slightly in-touch with
“generation now,” and I know that many of them do
use the computers to take notes during lecture and work
on in-class assignments. I don’t want to penalize those
who actually benefit academically from the ease of
Students today expect us
to be entertainers, and while we find the material
itself riveting enough (since we have devoted much of
our lives and money to its study), our 18-22-year-old
pupils cannot usually muster the same enthusiasm.
As they say, youth is
wasted on the young.
I’m not proposing that we
dance for our students or even attempt to meet their
impossible standards for stimulation. But I do think we
could benefit from reflecting on our own experiences to
try to excite those who are searching for something they
can do to make a difference in the world.
In my classroom, I fight
for their attention because I believe the subject matter
is just that important. I try to carry over that same
zeal I had for my professional work into the classroom
in hopes of drowning out the voice in their heads that
argues, as one of my students so eloquently put it,
“Celebrity Twitter profiles don’t just check
I assigned a project
recently that required students to start their own
reporting blog on a topic they will follow throughout
the semester. At first they groaned about the workload,
but after a brainstorming session where I
enthusiastically encouraged their ideas and helped them
come up with individual plans, they were excited, too.
In fact, I overheard one student after class say, “I
haven’t been this excited about journalism in a long
Somehow, that gap doesn’t
seem so big anymore.
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