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R E AC H I N G TO DAY ’ S

D I ST RAC T E D ST U D E N TS :
A HANDBOOK
FO R P R O F E S S O R S

by philip preville
Smart profs will
use technology
to easily update
course material
pg. 12

3 Introduction: Problems in the Lecture Hall


5 Five Strategies to Reach Distracted Students
6 Get Personal
8 Play the Game
10 Pivot Toward the Future
12 Freshen Up the Lecture
14 Mine the Data
16 Conclusion: The Smartest Person in the Room
18 About the Author: Philip Preville
19 Sources

Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 2


INTRODUCTION

PROBLEMS IN
T H E L EC T U R E H A L L
How’s this for an absurd paradox: over the last 200
years universities and colleges have been hotbeds
of technological change and innovation, yet their
classrooms haven’t changed at all. Since the early 19th
century adoption of the blackboard, classrooms have
been structured like theatres, with rows of seats facing
a large screen, and a professor’s pulpit.
The problem of student boredom, fed by this static
pedagogical model, is at least as old as the classroom
itself. Listless pupils are left to daydream or doodle until
they (hopefully) hear something that coaxes them back
to attention. Technology, rather than helping to solve
this issue, is only making it worse. Today’s students,
armed with laptops, smartphones and free Wi-Fi, have
a world of distractions at their fingertips, all of
which they find more immediately engaging than the
curriculum and oration they’ve paid to receive.
For university teachers, the problem is now
omnipresent. The 2016 Professor Pulse Survey¹,
with more than 21,000 university faculty respondents
worldwide, found that “students not paying attention
or participating in class” is the biggest teaching
challenge they face.
Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 3
After 200 years, we have
TWEET reached the point where the
THIS
traditional post-secondary
pedagogical model is
irretrievably broken

The survey also found that 42 per cent of professors


say students don’t come to class prepared to learn.
The anecdotal evidence is worse. In interviews for this
publication, professors told dispiriting stories of sitting
at the back of their colleagues’ classrooms and watching
students wander the internet: checking sports scores
and Twitter feeds, shopping for shoes and watching
pornography.
Such is the evolution of student inattention: from
passive ennui to active distraction to, ultimately, full
disengagement. And the deterioration is having a
detrimental impact on comprehension and grades.
One study at The Catholic University in Washington,
D.C., showed that students’ attention spans during
traditional lectures do not even last 10 to 20 minutes.
Rather, students constantly fluctuate between
engagement and disengagement in ever-shortening
cycles.² After 200 years, we have clearly reached
the point where the traditional pedagogial model is
irretrievably broken.
Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 4
F I V E ST RAT EG I E S
TO R E AC H D I ST RAC T E D
ST U D E N TS
It is the teachers who most sharply see and feel the impact
of classroom disengagement. They are also the ones
best situated to correct the trend, by incorporating new
techniques and new technology into their teaching.
The Professor Pulse Survey found that 69 per cent of
faculty use learning management systems, while 49 per
cent use social media such as Facebook, Twitter and
YouTube. And while many classrooms maintain a taboo
against using smartphones during class, 37 per cent
of survey respondents incorporate mobile devices into
their learning.³
But there is little point in devoting more time and
effort into teaching, and adopting new technologies
in the classroom, if it falls on deaf ears—that is, if
students would still rather shop online than learn
online. Successful teaching will ultimately depend on
how technology is applied to keep students engaged and
raise their comprehension. Here are five ways professors
can use new technology to greatest effect, and keep
their tech-savvy students focused on learning.
Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 5
1

GET PERSONAL

The phrase “personalized learning” projects. What’s changed is the


prompts many academics to despair. technology that enables them,
They already spend countless which can transform the learning
hours meeting with students process into something far more
individually and providing feedback social and diverse. Catalog searches
on assignments. How are they were always solitary activities;
supposed to personalize every digital queries are not. Students,
weekly lecture for 12 students, networked together online, can
or 50, or 500? share information and discuss
But this response understands relevant discoveries immediately,
the problem backwards. It’s cobbling together a group project
students themselves who drive the while never gathering in a meeting
personalization of their learning, room. Video materials, which once
by choosing their assignment required advance bookings of
topics, pursuing the specific special equipment for editing and
curiosities piqued by class classroom viewing, can now be
instruction, and sharing and prepared at home and posted
collaborating with peers.⁴ to message boards or social
True, there’s nothing new about media pages.
assignment choices or group These methods have been part of
Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 6
Students who
are networked
together online
can share
information and
discuss relevant
discoveries

Millennials’ learning routines since and engaging when they are


middle school, so it likely comes as shared with a broader audience.
a surprise when higher education Students are more likely to invest
doesn’t systematically incorporate their sense of self in the project.⁵
them. Digital technology, already the Personalization also means
infrastructure of student learning, giving each student a say in the
must become the infrastructure of progress of the course. Online
the classroom as well. engagement systems help
And if today’s students learn professors regularly check in for
through digital content, then feedback on course materials
producing and sharing digital works and assignments. Profs can also
with classmates should be part of simply take five minutes before
their evaluation. This trend towards each class to informally chat with
“student generated content” marks different groups of students—this
an important shift, because the helps students build a relationship
projects are never intended solely with their professors, which can
for the professor’s eyes. The public make them feel more comfortable
nature of wikis, blogs, podcasts, speaking up during the lecture or
apps and videos raises the stakes: approaching the professor outside
the projects are more meaningful of the classroom.
Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 7
2

P L AY T H E G A M E

According to a 2012 Pew Research The pace of the traditional


Centre study⁶ on teens’ increasing classroom lecture obviously grates
reliance on technology, “negative against these shifting expectations.
effects include a need for instant But immediacy in the classroom
gratification [and] loss of doesn’t have to mean instant
patience.” Sound familiar? But gratification. Rather, it’s another
it’s narrow to assign these traits form of engagement: a means of
only to young people, or to see presenting course materials that
them as irrational. Everyone with can encourage students to dwell
a laptop expects information to upon them, interact with them,
flow immediately. We have all and weave them into their
honed the ability to quickly sift personal knowledge.
through search results to find what What’s most gratifying of all—
we are looking for. And we are and what most helps learning
all familiar with the frustrations and retention—is applying the
of a webpage that won’t load or a knowledge to a given situation,
pokey, unresponsive browser. The real or artificial. Many professors
desire for immediacy is a social and are turning toward classroom
cultural trait for anyone who “gamification”: the use of
is tech-enabled. competitive scenarios, and the
Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 8
public distribution of points and expressed through online gaming.⁹
rewards. The trend is recent, but The way to repatriate those
some studies already show that behaviors back into the classroom,
gamification has a positive and incorporate the professors
impact upon both engagement back into the equation, is to gamify
and learning.⁷ course content.
Higher learning is not a game, The key to successfully
but the typical course outline does implementing this strategy is
have some obvious affinities with to make sure the games are
video games. Both begin with basic designed to support the course’s
learnings, then move on to related learning objectives.¹⁰ Professors
scenarios of increasing complexity should start with a clear statement
to achieve new levels of mastery.⁸ of the skills and comprehensions
Moreover, as MIT’s Education that constitute the course’s
Arcade and others have pointed foundation, and the development
out, many learning behaviors that and advancement they expect
traditionally found their greatest to see at semester’s end—and
utility in college classrooms— gamify the curriculum to help
persistence, problem solving, risk both them and their students,
taking and collaboration—are achieve those goals.

GAMIFICATION STRATEGIES INCLUDE


SIMPLE REWARDS SELF-DIRECTED COMPETITIONS CLASS-WIDE
Gold stars for AMBITIONS Competitive COLLABORATION
attendance, Complete a quizzes that Reward
completed series of tasks track scores, students for
readings and to unlock new streaks and their collective
participation. challenges. leaderboards. success to
encourage
knowledge
sharing.

Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 9


3

P I VOT TO WA R D T H E F U T U R E

The younger generation’s In such a world, the idea that the


expectation of immediacy isn’t subject matter they’re learning
just about screen habits and web today will be pertinent to their
searches. It’s also about learning careers 10 years from now
itself: they want their education seems quaint.
to be relevant to their everyday This is one of the most
lives, and to the path they envision compelling reasons for
for themselves. If it’s not, they professors to adopt technology
tune out. in any classroom, for courses on
Whether they approach their everything from metaphysics to
post-secondary experience as a nursing to teaching itself. The
broad education, or as specific classic skills of a liberal-arts
vocational training, students today education—analysis of evidence,
live by the 21st century truism argument construction, problem
that they are training themselves solving—are as important as ever.
for jobs that don’t yet exist. That But they are no longer solely
requires them to be ready for sufficient. For those skills to be
cutting-edge technologies that useful in the job market, students
will transform the knowledge base need to practice applying them
of future learning in their field. not just on paper, but in digital
Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 10
Students today know that
TWEET they are training themselves
THIS
for jobs and technologies
that don’t yet exist. They
need to be highly adaptable

environments and social networks. including formal evaluations and


Students want to be highly peer review, all while explaining
adaptable, by developing strong to students that their ability
relationship skills, following to receive, question and apply
industry trends and keeping at feedback—the very definition of
the forefront of computerized adaptability—is itself a highly
applications. These expectations marketable skill.¹¹
align with those of their future With technology constantly
employers, who expect graduates changing and evolving, it’s no
to be resourceful, able to longer practical to train students
communicate clearly and unafraid to use specific tools. Instead,
to seek clarification or feedback. applying technology in the
Professors can keep their classroom will sharpen the high-
courses relevant by targeting level competencies that make
specific skills for development the students more employable:
and using interactive technology good communication skills,
to support their adoption. They resourcefulness and the ability
can also structure their courses to collaborate, assess, provide
to provide ongoing feedback feedback and develop a marketable
to students on their progress, digital persona.
Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 11
4

F R E S H E N U P T H E L EC T U R E

Every professor is familiar with excerpts can be easily referenced


what happens when he or she in class. Student-maintained
develops new course materials course wikis are inexpensive, easily
and then fails to update the adaptable to new developments
content. Students engage so in any field, and include their
well in the first year, professors own historical record of changes.
decide to re-use the same outline When combined, wikis and digital
and lecture notes—only to have textbooks make expensive print
students engage less and less in textbooks seem obsolete.
subsequent years. The material, But textbook-supported
and its instruction, always need lecturing needs more than
refreshing. refreshing: it also needs trimming.
Classroom technology, when In the simplest terms, classroom
fully integrated into a course, innovation means mixing things
makes this process easier. Quiz up. Video content, such as a
questions can become a staple of news broadcast, can transport
every lecture, with results available students into the world of the
instantaneously to review and subject at hand. Social media can
parse. Digital textbooks can embed give students a window into the
links to related materials, and attitudes, exchanges and political
Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 12
Classroom innovation
TWEET means mixing things up
THIS
with fresh, topical reference
material, video content and
social media case studies

movements of others beyond their


THE
scope of experience—for instance, FRONTLINE
studying the role of social media PROF
platforms like Twitter and Facebook Class material and
instruction must be constantly
in the Arab Spring of 2011, as updated and improved
Harvard’s Kennedy School does.¹² to keep students engaged
With these materials as part 1
of the mix, time spent lecturing Use digital textbooks and
can become more focused, adding incorporate up-to-date,
depth of understanding and guiding relevant links and
reference material
discussion in fertile directions.
And technology can make in-class 2
participation more accessible Break up the lecture with
by allowing shy and introverted video content and social
students to submit questions. Best media case studies
of all, using digital technology 3
in class, during what was once Record student
exclusively lecture time, improves presentations as part of
student attendance, participation, assessment and feedback
retention and comprehension.
Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 13
5

M I N E T H E DATA

The benefits of interactive data from previous years can


classroom technologies don’t provide benchmarks against
stop with their impact on student which to measure the current
engagement. A well-designed crop’s progress. The system can
teaching platform, implemented identify individual students who
across subsequent years and set would benefit from additional
up to capture individual and instruction—and be used to deliver
collective student data, can bring supplemental materials to them.
countless benefits for professors Before long, student data can
as well, helping them target their be used to identify both patterns
interventions. and deviations, spotting gaps
By funneling course work in learning among individuals
through an online learning and groups, helping professors
platform, professors can track prepare lectures to fill those gaps,
the amount of time and effort and designing exit quizzes to
students are devoting to a course. test learning effectiveness. It can
It becomes easier to test for even suggest project teams based
comprehension of key concepts, on students’ shared interests or
as well as for the origins of complementary strengths.
misunderstanding. Student Ohio State University’s
Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 14
Profs can use
student data
to spot gaps in
learning and then
address those
gaps in future
lectures

Professor Debra Barnette takes enrich and support this tactic,


a data-driven approach to Barnette uses the platform to assign
teaching her pharmacology and her students interactive homework
therapeutics classes.¹³ She uses questions, which allows them to
the Top Hat teaching platform to test their comprehension of the
gain insight into overall class and readings prior to class.
individual student performance. Barnette begins the lesson by
With the system’s transparent taking up the answers submitted
learning metrics, Barnette can to the homework questions with
connect with students who the whole group, using the results
consistently struggle—sooner and to guide the day’s team-based
on an individual basis—even in a work project, answer common
large class. Students who excel questions, or clarify major trends
use overall weekly class metrics of misunderstanding. Her tech-
to inspire playful competition. enabled classroom improves
Barnette’s students are student engagement with the
responsible for completing and course, but also improves her
reflecting upon the week’s readings, engagement with students and
so that they can participate in helps her understand how they
classroom team-based work. To are progressing.
Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 15
CONCLUSION

T H E S M A RT E ST P E R S O N
IN THE ROOM
University and college faculty today are under intense
pressure. Increasing enrollment has administrations
demanding they teach more. Increased tuition fees have
students demanding a job upon graduation. According
to the Professor Pulse Survey¹⁴, 21 per cent of surveyed
faculty say they’ve felt pressure to raise grades, while
25 per cent have felt pressure to make courses easier
for students.
Neither of those strategies offers a lasting solution,
because they merely contribute to the biggest dilemma
in campus life today: classroom disengagement.
Student bodies are in an open, quiet revolt on their
laptops and smartphones, fueled by online distraction.
Inflating grades or reducing workloads doesn’t address
the problem. And instructors can no longer just keep
on lecturing, assuming that distracted students will
eventually tune in and rejoin the discussion. They won’t.
If online access keeps students actively distracted,
professors must take active counter-measures to
pull students back in and keep them engaged—
often employing the very same technologies that
are distracting students. Audio, video, and online
Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 16
If online access distracts
TWEET students, profs must pull
THIS
them back in and keep them
engaged using the very same
distracting technologies

digital materials are easier to incorporate into


classroom learning than ever before. Every student
has the resources to access them, and most have
the rudimentary skills to create them as part of
coursework. Students are already deeply engaged
in social media; the behavior can be cultivated and
shaped for learning. The principles of online game
design can be incorporated into course structure.
Targeted skills development and continuous feedback
make learning more immediate and relevant.
All of these strategies can support the basic metrics
of good teaching: attendance, participation, retention,
comprehension, grades and teacher evaluations.
Professors remain the subject matter experts in the
lecture hall—but that alone won’t guarantee them the
room’s undivided attention. By using new strategies
to deliver course content, and incorporating digital
technology, they’ll better enjoy the signature satisfaction
felt by teachers: the sharing of knowledge to curious,
engaged and motivated students.
Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 17
THE AUTHOR

PHOTOGRAPHER: ASH NAYLER

PHILIP
PREVILLE
Philip Preville is an award-winning
journalist and a former Canadian
Journalism Fellow at Massey
College at the University of Toronto.
He’s currently a member of the
Professional Advisory Council
with the Department of English at
Ryerson University.

Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 18


SOURCES

1 https://tophat.com/professor-attitudes-and-opinions-2016/

2 http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/ed100409p

3 https://tophat.com/professor-attitudes-and-opinions-2016/

4 https://onlinelearninginsights.wordpress.com/2016/01/10/three-trends-
that-will-influence-learning-and-teaching-in-2016/

5 https://www.scu.edu/provost/teaching-and-learning/digital-resources-
for-teaching-drt/teaching/

6 http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/02/29/main-findings-teens-
technology-and-human-potential-in-2020/

7 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10494820.2014.964263 and
http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/0031-9120/51/5/055007/meta

8 https://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_
better_world

9 http://education.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/
MovingLearningGamesForward_EdArcade.pdf

10 http://education.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/
MovingLearningGamesForward_EdArcade.pdf

11 https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/enhancing-student-employability-
through-technology-supported-assessment-and-feedback

12 https://courses.harvard.edu/detail?q=id:d_
hks_2017_5_170356_&returnUrl=search%3Ffq_
day%3Dday%253A%2522Thursday%2522%26fq_offered_fl%3Doffered_
fl%253A%2522Offered%2522%26fq_term_desc%3Dterm_

13 https://blog.tophat.com/team-based-learning/

14 https://tophat.com/professor-attitudes-and-opinions-2016/

Reaching Today’s Distracted Students tophat.com 19


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