Laptops and Class Attention

From a recent study reported in the Chronicle that used eye-tracking data to track time-on-task (defined as “as looking at the professor, at PowerPoint slides, or at notes, or talking to neighbors about a discussion question”).

Mr. Rosengrant hasn’t finished analyzing correlations between on-task behavior and demographic data. Over all, though, a student’s location in the classroom was an enormous factor affecting whether the student was on task, he said.

“The students who were in the front and center of the room really were on task much more than the students in the back of the room,” Mr. Rosengrant said. A variety of reasons account for that pattern, he said. Students at the sides of the room are more likely to have to crane their necks to see the board, which is tiring, while students at the back are often distracted by the visible computer screens of those sitting in front of them.

I’m moving in my own class to a more forceful laptop policy (laptops will be closed during class presentations and discussions, period) and the main reason is that in student evaluations (both informal and summative) the persistent student complaint I see is that I didn’t crack down hard enough on the Facebookers. Honestly. It is the students that are asking if we could please crack down on web use unrelated to class. And the reason they cite is that is is pretty darn hard to pay attention to class when so many people are web browsing.

This study suggests that those students might be right. Now certainly there’s a bit of reverse causality at work in this study — your best students might not sit at the back of the lecture hall to begin with. But put yourself in the shoes of a student that is in the back — she sees you and twenty or thirty computer screens in front her — computer screens that are doing all sorts of crazy things. LOLcats, animated GIFs, Facebook chats, Youtube videos.

There’s not really a world where this is an ideal environment for learning. And one thing that student in the back is paying for, most definitely, is an environment conducive to learning.

Diehard laptop policy anarchists will say — well, if your presentation is more boring than the internet, then maybe you’re the problem! To which I say — have you ever been on internet? If we’re asking professors now to be more interesting than browsing the internet we are going to have to radically adjust the pay scales….


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