Devices everywhere and not a drop of knowledge gained

About once a year, I take a trip with friends to the Smokey Mountains. We rent a cabin and spend a long weekend catching up, and driving the local mountain roads. One of the interesting side effects of the trip is that it’s a long weekend of being nearly totally cut off from the outside world. Our usual cabin and a lot of the Smokey Mountains are out of the range of cell towers.

The number of times while sitting around chatting and a question is asked at least half the group subconsciously grabs for our phones, a handful get the phone out only to make some statement as they remember “oh yea, no signal…” and put the phone away.

The classrooms are much the same, students packed to the gills with devices, all of them active and rarely are they all on the task of education. To stress the difficulties their devices place on education we run discuss the issue of task switching and run an exercise. We have the students draw two lines on their paper, we start a timer and have them write above the first line write “task switching is a thief” and below the upper line write “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20” and then their time of completion. For the second round they have to alternate a letter from the sentence and a number and then time of completion. Inevitably almost everyone’s second time is significantly slower. Even with the evidence of the detriments of trying to multitask in front of them, they still do it. Some become so engrossed in their devices that I can even sit down next to them while they do anything but coursework and they don’t notice.

Having all of the access to information we have with these devices is great, but only if its used responsibility. I frequently see students who are spending class doing anything but paying attention who wind up missing information and asking me to fill them in later. We have tried a number of methods to encourage them to use the devices for class, but some just want to waste their time in class.

Being the professional mean guy?

At the start of the semester for the course I TA, I get to wrap up the first week with a second semi-syllabus day, and cover some minor details that need covering but aren’t worth the instructor’s course time to cover. The material is mostly procedural, and very dry, things like how to get excused from the course for an interview so you don’t lose credit. One of the things I try to make abundantly clear to the students is that it is my intention to treat them as professionals, co-workers almost, but that I have certain expectations of them that they absolutely need to meet.

Overall I think they respond well to this. Inevitably even in a class of mostly seniors, they are not prepared for the notion that they will have to be proactive, I will not seek them out. I explain to them on this intro day, “tell me about issues when they happen so I can work with you” yet every class has a few students who wind up waiting until the days before grades are due to tell me about some computer issue that kept them from submitting things for the entire third and fourth weeks of the class and they need those points to make whatever grade.

It’s at that point I wind up being the mean guy in their eyes, because they want the grade they feel they’ve earned. (maybe there’s a conditioned behavior in there) But I won’t give in. I tend to stick very strictly to the classroom policies and become the mean guy who won’t budge.

I don’t necessarily enjoy denying the students the grades they want. But I also take the classroom environment very seriously, how is it fair to the students who followed policies I established (and have an attendance record for when I said them) to bend the rules “just this once” and what would that do to my credibility. So I guess that just makes me the professional mean guy, a role I think I am ok with, I just wish I didn’t have to deal with the disappointed students who don’t get the grades they feel they deserve.

Being the professional mean guy?

At the start of the semester for the course I TA, I get to wrap up the first week with a second semi-syllabus day, and cover some minor details that need covering but aren’t worth the instructor’s course time to cover. The material is mostly procedural, and very dry, things like how to get excused from the course for an interview so you don’t lose credit. One of the things I try to make abundantly clear to the students is that it is my intention to treat them as professionals, co-workers almost, but that I have certain expectations of them that they absolutely need to meet.

Overall I think they respond well to this. Inevitably even in a class of mostly seniors, they are not prepared for the notion that they will have to be proactive, I will not seek them out. I explain to them on this intro day, “tell me about issues when they happen so I can work with you” yet every class has a few students who wind up waiting until the days before grades are due to tell me about some computer issue that kept them from submitting things for the entire third and fourth weeks of the class and they need those points to make whatever grade.

It’s at that point I wind up being the mean guy in their eyes, because they want the grade they feel they’ve earned. (maybe there’s a conditioned behavior in there) But I won’t give in. I tend to stick very strictly to the classroom policies and become the mean guy who won’t budge.

I don’t necessarily enjoy denying the students the grades they want. But I also take the classroom environment very seriously, how is it fair to the students who followed policies I established (and have an attendance record for when I said them) to bend the rules “just this once” and what would that do to my credibility. So I guess that just makes me the professional mean guy, a role I think I am ok with, I just wish I didn’t have to deal with the disappointed students who don’t get the grades they feel they deserve.

Signs of life in the Skinner box

I’ve long felt that grades are an outdated mode of determining educational performance. As seems universally supported across the readings this week, grades don’t measure what is learned by the student, only what they were tested on. Grades also encourage limited learning as the motivation becomes focused on passing the test and not learning to learn.

The students have become conditioned, similar to that of mice in B.F. Skinner’s experiments, do exactly what you are told with no variation and you will be rewarded with the grades you want. Deviate from what you are told and your reward will be altered. The conditioning begins early in elementary school and continues with the introduction of honors and AP coursework. Learn exactly what you’re told better than most of everyone else and you will get to move ahead to the next level of rewards, completed course credits in college.

The problem is that for us as academics, like Kohn and others have pointed out, this approach leads to classrooms full of perfectly conditioned college students, seeking their reward and the instructions on how to claim it. But the conditioning is so strong that if for some reason the earned reward is not at the same level as was expected for their work we are faced with emails, upset students, upset administrators and poor teaching evaluations.

This situation is so pervasive and the conditioning so strong that it makes alternative evaluation approaches challenging. Students don’t respond well to abstract criteria they cant necessarily study for. In my grading approaches I prefer written essay statements from the students, formulated from response to various prompts, demonstrating their mastery and understanding of the concepts. I describe the approach to the students in advance as looking for “signs of life” from them, that there is more going on than a parroting back of definitions and theories.

Ultimately, my quest to find their “signs of life” has to be equated back into a numerical grade as the students can’t exist without a grade. But as soon as the grades go out, those unhappy with my assessment will inevitably email me to argue for points back…

So you’re saying I haven’t been doing it wrong all along?

Third grade… multiplication tables… timer goes off… and once again, I’m still not done the worksheet. Being an overachiever, (go figure someone willingly pursuing a PhD is a overachiever) the worst part of it all is the chart in the back of the room. Every student who completed the worksheet got a sticker next to their name. Next to my name appallingly fewer stickers than the rest of the class. Endless repetition to teach basic math, endless and fruitless torture for me as a student with a number of learning disabilities.

It wasn’t until much later, senior year of college, working through some system of equations to solve some kind of fluids problem that I realized, I had just gotten through a page of work without grabbing for my calculator. FINALLY! I felt like I could do math like a 3rd grade student… I guess I stand as proof positive that the basics don’t have to be learned to the point of second nature. Basic math still requires active thought and I will still grab for the calculator more often than not just to be sure. Yet I would say I have been successful in my ventures so far.

Similar to the children observed absorbing Harry Potter through some unknown process, some topics just clicked for me. Ask me about how to reconfigure the suspension on a car to suit a style of driving and I can do it no problem. Ask me to calculate the forces in the suspension during a turn and the calculator is going to come back out, but I learned the equations for that.

I wish I could identify the means which I learned these things. I think, some level of interest and engagement factors into the learning with mindful practices. Based on my experiences, if there is no way to foster the engagement and enjoyment for learning no amount of mindful practices will aid in the process. But if you can foster the learning experience to cultivate that engagement, mindful learning has the opportunity to organically develop and follow.