I was suspended for a semester as an undergraduate. I came to Virginia Tech in 2011 as a freshman. I was thrown into an incoming freshman class of around 5,000 students. My high school graduating class had 23 people in it. We were a small, close-knit group and I had had the same teachers since 10th grade. I came in as a University Studies student with the dream of getting into engineering. In high school I had always been better than average at math and science and I thought that engineering seemed like an obvious fit. After a semester of terrible performance, I was put on probation. After another semester of more of the same, I was suspended. At the time, it was devastating. But looking back on the experience now, I am able to appreciate the positive changes it helped me to realize in my academic career.
There were several reasons for this turn of events – some in my control, and some under the control of the University environment:
- I didn’t go to class as much as I should have.
- I was not prepared for the anonymity that massive class sizes provided.
- I was convinced of my own multitasking skills (i.e. using laptops in class to ‘take notes’).
- I was taught entirely in lecture format classes.
- I had a lot of growing up to do.
The themes of this week revolve around teaching styles and obstacles to student learning. I’d like to take this time to address lecture-style classes and use of technology in class.
Regarding lectures, as the readings have shown, there are some positives and negatives. For the student, it is useful to be lectured to in a well-balanced education. However, it cannot be the only method that instructors use. In many of the classes that freshmen are expected to take, lecture is the primary teaching tool. It seems as if that norm may be changing in recent years, but students could really benefit from less lecture and more active forms of learning. In the classes that I teach now, I try to mix it up as much as I can. I like assigning in-class group exercises, discussions, and presentations. Yes, lecture is still necessary. And yes, there are still some students who do not engage in class and despite my best efforts, resist my efforts to pull them in. But, overall, when students are given the opportunity to share their thought processes and grapple with tough issues, rather than just listening to someone else talk about them, it seems (in general) that the material sinks in a little more.
Now on to the issue of laptops – a much debated issue. Honestly, after reading about whether they should be allowed in class and engaging in countless discussions with peers and professors, I still don’t know where I stand on this. I truly don’t think that people can multitask. But I also don’t know whether it’s the instructor’s responsibility to ‘force’ students to pay attention, or if that’s even possible. Although smartphones and laptops are recent technological advances, daydreaming has been around for a long time. If you take away one distraction, it’s very possible that students could find another. I will say, that in my own experience, I missed a lot of opportunities to learn as an undergrad due to my laptop use. It wasn’t until I took a class in my first semester back from suspension, when a professor had the whole class complete an exercise designed to show our futile attempts at multitasking that I put away the laptop in class for good. Sure, I got it out now and again when needed. But from that point, I knew that if I had it out, I probably wouldn’t be paying attention to what was going on around me. The point of that story is to say that maybe it’s not the instructor’s job to force students to put away the laptops and pay attention. But, maybe it’s a teachable moment. Instructors can demonstrate the harm that laptops are having on their student’s focus and attention and maybe convince a few of them of the benefits of giving the class that they’re in a little more of their attention.
I started out this post with the story of my failures during undergrad. I learned a lot of lessons as I plummeted downwards and I also learned a lot as I struggled to improve. I came out the other side as a pretty decent graduate student. So, while I might have been an undergraduate with some of the worst habits and zero interest in my classes, I learned for myself what it took to succeed and (probably more importantly) learn.