How to Engage Distracted Students at Assumption University

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Dr. James Lang, Professor of English and Director for the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University returned to the podcast to discuss his new book, “Distracted: Why Students Can't Focus and What You Can Do About It” and the research behind engaging distracted students.

We need to think about attention as anachievement. It requires effort, you're listening to enrollment growth,university from helic education, the best professional development podcastfor higher education leaders looking to grow in Romant at their college oruniversity, whether you're looking for fresh and romant growth techniques andstrategies or tools and resources. You've come to the right place. Let'sget into the show, welcome back to Enroman GrowthUniversity, a proud member of the connect Edu podcast network, I'm EricWolsom with heelics education and were here today with Doctor James Lang,professor and director, for the Center for Teaching Excellence at AssumptionCollege. Jim Welcome back to the show, thanks for having me really excited tohave you back nearly one hundred episodes later to talk about your newbook distracted, why students can't focus and what you can do about it anddiscuss how to undistract and better engage our students before we dig in.Can you remind the listeners about assumption college and your roles there?Yes actually, and we transitioned just a few months ago to assumptionuniversity now congrats. So I am a professor of English. I've been theresince two thirty year, two thousand actually the Falle of two thousand, andI now direct our center for teaching excellence, where we focus on helpingind supporting our faculty. Developing ideas and strategies for great teaching.Awesome Jym to kick US off today is student distraction, a uniquely twentyfirst century problem, and is education powerless to compete against ourstudents, other technological options. The answer is no. In both cases. Wedefinitely know that not only students, but humans have been distracted for avery long time. In the book I go back to Aristotle, talking about thedistractable minds of ancient Greeks in the theater or in the you know, publicspaced and listening to arguments. We...

...have evidence of Augustine talkingabout distraction. You know throughout the fifteen sixteen seventeen centuries.Eighteen centuries, lots of writers, philosophers thinkers talking about thedistractability of the human mind. This is something we seem to have beenunhappy about the distractability of our minds for Bot as long as peoplehave been talking about their minds, so we know that it's not a new problem.Well, we also know, in response to your second question: Is that what's changed?Is the power of our technologies to distract us? So when I was growing up,the television was the thing that everyone was concerned about in termsof distraction and attention, but I turn the television on for it todistract me. Our fodes are available to us always their in our pockets. Theybuzz at us. They Ping they sing to us, they call out to US- and that makes ita little bit more difficult for us to stay focused because that distractionis kind of always present to us. So what's change is not the human brainthat evolved over a very long period of time and the sort of architecture ofattention and distraction and the human brain is going to be stable, but what'schanged is the sort of power of our technologies to appeal to adistractable brain. So what I argue is we're not powerless, but we have to bea little bit more concerted and Deliberat in our efforts to helpstudents retain their attention in the classroom. I love your arguments thanwhat you ended up with after this research. Let's dig in and talk aboutyour twofold research process for this book, how you dove into investigatingthese questions about destractability. So there is really both kind oftraditional scoli research and then observation. So the tresual scholarresearch was looking at you know what what do neuroscientists in cotitispsychologist tell us about how our attention systems work. What do youknow? Contemporary Technology developers tell us about how they'rethey're working to play on our...

...distractable natures, so all kinds oflooking at like as well as educators, looking at reading what educators haveto say about strategies that are effective in the classroom, tocultimate attention or reduce distraction? And, of course, that's thesort of more traditional research method. The other method wasobservation, and that was observation of lots of different things. First ofall, my own teaching, I'm always kind of investigating what was effective formy own students and so looking at my own classroom experiences. Secondly,observing other faculty observed that you know at least a at least two orthree dosen classes over the course of the time that I was researching thebook and just always kind of had an eye on like winner students, drifting awayhere when are students paying attention? What is the teacher doing? That ishaving an impact on intention and distraction unless Tyeu just lookin atthe world around us like? When do people pay attention to stuff whatcauses people to become distracted not only like in the classroom but, likeyou know, when you're at the dinner table or when you're out at the theateror when you're playing a game with your friends like what are the things thatdistract us and hold our attention? Those experiences and what can teacherslearn from those different experiences? It's interesting as you're talking, I'mrealizing how many times my computer and phone have buzzed at me. It's a perfect reminder of howimportant this research is an Jym. Your research uncovers how important thepresence of the instructor is in capturings sdudent attention. How mightwe translate those learnings into the remote world of many of our classroomstoday when an instructors presence is visually limited to a smaller squarewithin a relatively small square? To begin with, yeah I mean that's achallenge, one of the things I argue in the Book Bis, that attention isreciprocal. The more attention I pay to you, the more attention you were goingto pay to me so in a classroom that the teacher can do that by moving aroundthe room. You know calling out individual students to engage inconversation, inviting everyone into...

...the room, doing things Aare going tohelp build that sense of community. Those things are all definitely morechallenging in the remote classroom. So we have to think creatively. We have tothink about, for example, how we are inviting students in by name our namestend to grave our attention. So you know in a zoom call we can seeeveryone's names and that's actually an advantage. So as we invite StudentsAyiner, we talk about different students comments. We can make surethat we're using people's names. We can think about the extent to which we aretrying to build community in the online classroom. The extent to which studentsfeel like they are, you know, recognizes unique individuals withstrengths and that they're bringing into the classroom all those things canhelp build that sense of community in the classroom and, ultimately, that'sto me what's most important, we want to be present to each other. That's kindof the ideal is when we can be present to one another in a classroom or evenonline, but in these remote classrooms we have to, I think, maybe work moregenerally at building community, so we feel that sense of reciprocalobligation to one another in terms of our attention. It's really good, toughgym in terms of the lecture versus active learning debate, talk about yourresearch findings that, rather than choosing the right modality, we reallyneed to avoid choosing the wrong time allotments for any activity yeah. Ihave this impression and you know I hear it all the time fom people sayingwell you the reason that students aren't paying attention in highereducation is because people are lecturing and what we need to do is getrid of the lecture. Students can't pay attention to election for forty fiveminutes or an hour or seventy five minutes, and that's true, but it's alsotrue that students have trouble paying attention to a seventy five minutediscussion. Anything that you do for a long period of time is going to fatigueyour students directed attention. That's one thing that we know forcertain about attention: it fatigues over time. It requires effort, and soyou know, if you're doing anything in particular that requires cognitiveeffort. You know it's going to degrade slowly over time. So to me, thesolution is not so much to argue for...

...anyone particular teaching strategy,but is to recognize that all of our teaching strategies are going to havelimits they're going to push up against the limits of our students attentionthe real. The fundamental argument that I make in the book is that we need tothink about attention as an achievement. It requires effort. It requiressustained effort O, especially in a classroom period, and so if werecognize that attention is an achievement that requires effort, thenwhat we can think about is okay. How am I supporting the effort of my studentsto pay attention and how am I making sure I'm not pushing that effort beyondthe limits of their capacities? So we want to make sure that we're planningour classes and ways that I like to think about as modular, so I might haveon a fifty or seventy five minute class, two or three things I have planned.I've thought about them deliberately in terms of how they're going to supportand sustains tudent attention, and none of them are going to go for an hour ortwo hours without a break or without some kind of change. Change and varietycan help. Renew attention breaks can help renew attention, but we just haveto think about that. We are not pressing the limits of attention fortoo long. I love that as your primary takeaway and I love your appeal toempathy with this book. You encourage faculty to think about and notice whenthey themselves find themselves both attentive and drifting throughout theirlife and to become more empathetic to how hard it is for anyone, includingthemselves, to stay focuse for an hour. Like you mention on anything. How doyou think we convert faculty from slightly upset that our students aren'thanging on our every word to understanding the reality of howimpossible that is for any human to do? Yeah I mean in some senses is kind ofan easy cell to make right now, because, as I'm, you know talking to facultyabout this and I'm giving workshops and and Lectures Tho fact that thevirtually about the subject of the book right now. The easiest thing for me tosay is look. You know, Wdon't, you think about the last departmentalmeeting you were in for the last...

...virtual meeting that you rent were youcompletely focus the entire time and the Ange is almost always know right.People are doing other things, they're, getting it turning off their camera andgetting up and walking away right so like if we're doing those things, youknow t d and were educated about these matters, and we believe attention isreally important. Just imagine how difficult it is for your students, soit's very easy now to kind of find sympathy or empathy with your studentsand the challenges they face in paying attention because we're allexperiencing it right now so again for me that doesn't mean we have to give upor that we have to say you know. Well, you know we can't do anything longerthan five minutes or ten minutes or fifteen minutes or whatever. We canstart to cultivate habits of event attention, and we can think morecarefully about how the environment is supporting attention. That's reallywhat we have to do is we have to kind of be deliberate about it, and you knowthat I was giving that as a kind of negative example, but it turned Ito apositive example. I always try to encourage factong to think about. Okay,what captures your attention when you were on a zoom, Webinar or mediawhatever, and you were focused? Why was that? What kept you engaged and whatwould that translate into in terms of your class? So we can look to our ownexperiences to get empathy with students, and then we can equally welllook to our own experiences to try to identify strategies and practices andsolutions that are going to help keep our students engaged. The mostimportant thing that I think we have to think about is again. How do we createan environment that supports attention? Jim Really, really really great stuff?Any next steps advice, maybe specifically tord faculty, who havehistorically been so focused on the what they want their students to learnand trying to convince them to start focusing more on the? How that'srequired for true engagement to take...

...place where shoul they start first. Sothere's two kind of strategies which are easy takeaways from the book.There's each a different chapter and the easy to remember teach like aplaywright teach like a poet. So what I mean by teach like a playwright is youknow, as I was reading the book as I starts doing the research on the bookand thinking about the fact that you know there are other artists who whohave had the experience for a long time now, of of trying to sustain theattention of human beings through extended periods of time, and thoseartists are people like playwrights and composers. So what do they do? Theythink about the experience in this kind of modular structure away, plays, haveacts and scenes and breaks in Ermissions. You know you go to see aclassical music performance same thing. It's got, you know a symphony indifferent parks and it's got a shorter piece. A longer piece they are, youknow, might end softly and begin loud in the next bee. So, like there's allkinds of thinking here about how we structure that experience and how weprovide change, ind variety throughout it. The other thing that these kinds ofexperiences have typically is we have like a program or something which kindof tells us. How is this ging, tof unfold? So in terms of teaching, like aplaywright, think about your classroom, the classroom experience as a modularone and try to have you know a couple, two three different, very specificthings: Youare going to be doing throughout that class period and makethat structure visible to students. This is another thing I like toencourage faculty to sort of think about your own experience, you'resitting in a conference, someone gets up there and just starts rambling away,and you have no idea how long it's going to go for, and it's not reallyclear what the main idea is or what the structure is. How long does it take youto drift away from that talk, not very typically right, whereas if you've gota speaker who gets up there and says okay, here's my main idea and I'm goingto make in four parts- and this is going to take about twenty minutesright then you're like okay, yeah, yeah, I'm here, right and and then Hap, youknow, and then it Starte, as the speakers there going through, is saying,okay and so that my third point every time you hear that R, your attentionperks back up again cu because you're being guided through that experienceyeah by the structure of it. So that's...

...the first thing: teach like a playrightby teach like a poet. What I mean is you know, poets painters, again artist,one of the things they do for us. is they they kind of reawaken ourattention to the everyday wonders and routines of the world right so still,life, painter kind of shows you that basket of fruit which might be sittingon your kitchen table. And U You look at it a thousand times. You don't thinkabout it and then it's framed in that painting and suddenly opens up a newway of understanding it or a poet that describes like some everyday experiencethat we all have, but does it in language that kind of makes you kind ofstep aut and go wow. That is an amazing thing. So that's what I want toencourage fact: Ato Try to Identifi what are teaching strategies that canhelp really reawaken the wonder of your students to your course content, butalso to the experience even of being in school and the example Ike. Given theyou know, one example I given the book, I give a bunch of these strategies, butmy favorite and the easiest one is an art history, professor, who sent herstudents to the local art museum and each week they had to look at the samepainting and write a new twopage paper about it. Thirteen weeks in a row- andso you know this was an instractor that said hey, you know what matters yer isthat you learn to look carefully and pay attention, and so I'm going tocreate a structure for you to do that yeah. I just thought that was soincredibly creative, yeah and really a really good demonstration of what itlooks like to take attention seriously and to give students a means ofcultivating habits of attention, so teach like a playwright teach like apoet. Those are my kind of too quick takeaways in terms of practical stepsfor faculty, there's such good ones. To and note this episode, Jim Thanks. Somuch of your time today, what's the best place for listeners to connectwith you if they have any offollip questions and where can they find thisbook? Visitors can check on my website at James mlangcom, and the book at thispoint is available everywhere. It's so all the usual: Let's, Amazon, Barns andnoble other's actually local book store.

In My town, wocster Massachusetts, Ihas signed copies. Thet people can order as well. It's called bedand books,but that information is all on my website too awesome thanks against somuch for joining us today. Jim You bad thanks for having me attracting today'snew posttraditional learners means adopting new enromant strategies.Keeliks educations data driven enterprise, wide approach to enrollmentgrowth is uniquely helping colleges and universities thrive in this neweducation, landscape and Helex has just published the second edition of theirenrollment growth playbook, with fifty percent brand new content on howinstitutions can solve today's most pressing enromant growth challengesdownload it today for free at helocs, Educationcom playbook you've been listening to enromentgrowth university from helics education to ensure that you never miss anepisode subscribe to the show in Itunes or your favorite podcast player. Thankyou so much for listening until next time.

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