Teaching Tips for Graduate Student Instructors Amidst Modern Teaching Environments

29 Jul 2017 4:00 PM | Anonymous

By Michelle ("Mikki") Hebl, Ph.D., Psychology and Professor of Management, Rice University

I was asked to write a blog post and offer some “teaching tips for graduate student instructors amidst modern teaching environments.” I will offer just one piece of advice for graduate students. It’s hard to believe I will offer only ONE piece of advice if you know me because I am chock-full of free advice and lots of words. But here it is – advice for students who may range from potentially nervous, first-timers in the classroom to those who have been teaching their own sections or classes for 4-5 years already.  I offer this tip regarding evolving technology-related practices with the belief that it might be relevant regardless of current and future technological and pedagogical advances.

My caveat is that my advice is NOT based on much research, at least not in a knowingly reference supported, experimentally derived, or quantitative, large-sample-size sense. Instead, my straightforward advice comes from my idiographic experiences; from watching others; and from talking to other faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students. The advice may not be a blanket recommendation and lead to efficacy for all but it is based on a basic conclusion that I have drawn from teaching for 25 years at a combination of the following hodgepodge of places: Rice, Dartmouth, Texas A&M University, Baylor University, and on Semester at Sea programs.

So here it is. I offer you my anti-technology advice about modern teaching environments. Sorry if you were expecting otherwise

Please consider dissuading the use of computers, iPads, cellphones, or similar electronic devices in the classroom.

There is a reason that driving accidents increase as people answer their phones, text, apply their makeup, fiddle with their music, or do any of the other hundreds of crazy things people try to do at the same time they are driving. Take it from me – the daughter of a driver’s education teacher who has heard and seen lots of memorable things – and as someone who personally has changed from work clothes into a bathing suit on the way to masters swim class… while driving (yes, an officer stopped me). These things take our attention away from what we are trying to do. And so it is the same in the classroom. We divide our attention and take it away from the valuable messages that the teacher is trying to deliver to us.  But... you might have a knee-jerk response, especially if you are one of those classroom electronic users… ”my mind wanders so much that I’m not learning anyway,” “at least I’m learning something on my device as I’m listening to some monotone teacher drone on and on,” or “surely I can multi-task and answer a few emails or check the headlines at the same time.” But I would argue… NOT without the potential of a lot of lost learning and without the possibility of mind wandering and getting further distracted.

This semester will be the third semester I have begun this practice in my undergraduate classes and I will initiate it in my graduate classes in future semesters. Of course, there are always exceptions to each rule and if a student has a convincing argument (e.g., disability) for using electronics in the classroom, I will likely be open to it

But I would like to tell y’all how I came to my opinion that we should go back to a less technological world in the classroom (or at least one without the use of what I will call “computers without boundaries”).  The reason is NOT because people forget to lower the volume on their computers and they make very disruptive noises or because the phone has gone off many times in my classrooms. It is not because I have a personal vendetta against computers. I prize and love my MacBook Air. It is not because I want to make students mad. I assure you, my students are some of my favorite people in the world.

Instead, two experiences led me to this conclusion. First, I had the wonderful experience of evaluating my colleague’s teaching performance when she was going up for tenure. She is a gifted teaching and there are no known (!) reports of students who would describe her as boring or unskilled at teaching. Then, it amazed me, as I watched from the back of the class and unbeknownst to most students, I noticed just how many of them were on their laptops doing completely random and none-class related activities. Many were reading the news, some were surfing, others were all over Facebook looking up pictures, some were doing emails and texting, and three people were playing video games. I have to admit two of them were doing videogames that I watched for about three minutes and then saw out of the corner of my eye on and off again for the rest of the class. The videogame was a Texas duel in which the object was to shoot the opponent faster than they could shoot you. Granted, this sort of videogaming during lectures may become really important given Texas’s new law that allows students to carry concealable guns into the classroom (and in September, Texans can open carry swords… but don’t get me started here… ). Students have become unabashedly bold about using their laptops to do work unrelated to note-taking during classes. It’s not the exception, it’s the norm.  When did it become the norm, when a teacher is talking, to not give him or her your full attention and try to learn from the expert as much as you possibly can?  I’m not cynical. I’m not old. Okay, maybe I’m becoming a little of both,  but graduate students becoming burgeoning teachers, let’s shut off the really leaky faucet until we have better stoppers. I argue we are NOT helping our students, rather we might be reinforcing an attention-deficit world. Spoken from someone who seems a little attention deficit.

Second, I recently taught a graduate student class of a very small number. Very small number. I rather liked each one of these students and they all used their computers throughout the class. Only it became readily apparent to me that one particular student was actually doing all sorts of other work during the class. Every class. If you don’t think we know, you’re wrong. It’s really obvious when we pose a question and pause and you aren’t looking, you are madly typing away with purpose, and you forget to even look up and pretend to be paying attention. Maybe I wasn’t interesting enough. Maybe I was droning on. Maybe the student already knew everything I was trying to teach. Maybe she had other issues that were more pressing.  Or maybe… just maybe… our inability to filter, put boundaries around, or altogether prevent the use of computers and electronic technology has reinforced a culture in which students no longer feel like they have to even play the game of respect in the classroom. I’m not mad at the student. Again, I rather like her. But what it shows me is that the interruption of evolving technology needs to be more carefully considered.  And until then, I’m doing something a little radical. I’m preventing them from entering the classroom. Call it radical. I am one of the last mother holdouts from buying her 13 year-old son a cellphone. Maybe I’ve been on a ship at sea for far too long.  Will I regret having written this ten years from now?  Will I seem like a dinosaur? Probably.  But for now, I wholly recommend that if you are serious about the craft of teaching… if you want to maximize the attention that people direct away from you… if you want people to give their full devotion to the sage things you are hopefully teaching… then, I would highly recommend you make them turn off their devices too.

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