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 asan achievement. It requires effort. You're listening to enrollment growth university from HelixEducation, the best professional development podcast for higher education leaders looking to grow enrollmentat their college or university. Whether you're looking for fresh enrollment growth techniques andstrategies or tools and resources, you've come to the right place. Let's getinto the show. Welcome back to enrollment growth university, a proud member ofthe connect eedu podcast network. I'm Eric Olson with Helix Education, and we'rehere today with Dr James Lange, professor and director for the Center for TeachingExcellence at Assumption College. Jim, welcome back to the show. Thanks forhaving me. Really excited to have you back, nearly one hundred episodes later, to talk about your new book distracted, why students can't focus and what youcan do about it, and discuss how to undistract and better engage ourstudents. Before we dig in, can you remind the listeners about assumption collegeand your roles there? Yes, actually, and we transition just a few monthsago to assumption university now. CONGRATS. So I'm a professor of English.I've been there since two of the year two thousand, actually the fallowtwo thousand, and I now direct our center for teaching excellence, where wefocus on helping and supporting our faculty, developing ideas and strategies for great teaching. Awesome Jim to kick us off today. Is Student Distraction a uniquely twenty onecentury problem, and is education powerless to compete against our students other technologicaloptions? The answer is no in both cases. We definitely know that notonly students but humans have been distracted for a very long time. In thebook I go back to Aristotle talking about the distractable minds of ancient Greeks inthe theater or in the you know,...

...public space and listening to arguments.We have evidence of Augustine talking about distraction. You know, throughout the fifteen,sixteen, seventeen centuries, eighteen centuries, lots of writers, philosophers, thinkerstalking about the distractability of the human mind. This is something we seemto have been unhappy about, the distractability of our minds, for about aslong as people have been talking about their minds. So we know that it'snot a new problem. Well, we also know, in response to yoursecond question, is that what's changed is the power of our technologies to distractus. So when I was growing up, the television was the thing that everyonewas concerned about in terms of distraction and attention, but I to turnthe television on for it to distract me. Our phones are available to us,always there in our pockets. They buzz at us, They Ping,they sing to us, they call out to us, and that it makesit a little bit more difficult for us to stay focused because that distraction iskind 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 a distractable brain. So what I argue is we're not powerless, but we have to bea little bit more concerted and deliberate in our efforts to help students retain theirattention in the classroom. I love your arguments. Then, what you endedup with after this research. Let's dig in and talk about your twofold researchprocess for this book, how you dove into investigating these questions about distractability.So there is really both kind of traditional scholarly research and then observation. Sothe traditional scholar research was looking at you know what, what do neuroscientists andcognent of psychologist tell us about how our attention systems work? What do youknow contemporary technology developers tell us about how they're they're working to play on ourdistractable natures? So all kinds of looking...

...at like as well as educators,looking at reading what educators have to say about strategies that are effective in theclassroom to cultivate attention or reduce distraction. And of course that's the sort ofmore traditional research method. The other method was observation, and that was observationof lots of different things. First of all, my own teaching. I'malways kind of investigating what was effective for my own students and so looking atmy own classroom experiences. Secondly, absorbing other faculty. Observed, you know, at least two, at least two or three dozen two classes over thecourse of the time that I was researching the book and just always kind ofhad an eye on like winner students drifting away here, when our students payingattention? What is a teacher doing that is having an impact on attention anddistraction. And lastly, just look at the world around us, like whendo people pay attention to stuff? What causes people to become distracted, notonly like in the classroom, but like, you know, when you're at thedinner table or when you're out at the theater or when you're playing agame with your friends? Like, what are the things that distract us andhold our attention those experiences, and what can teachers learn from those different experiences? It's interesting as you're talking I'm realizing how many times my computer and phonehave a buzzed at me. It's a perfect reminder of how important this researchis. And, Jim, your research uncovers how important the presence of theinstructor is in capturing student attention. How might we translate those learnings into theremote world of many of our classrooms today, when in instructors presence is visually limitedto a smaller square, within a relatively small square to begin with?Yeah, I mean that's a challenge. One of the things I argue inthe book is that attention is reciprocal. The more attention I pay to you, the more attention you are going to pay to me. So in aclassroom that the teacher can do that by moving around the room, you know, calling out individual students to engage in conversation, inviting everyone into the room, doing things are going to help build...

...that sense of community. Those thingsare all definitely more challenging in the remote classroom. So we have to thinkcreatively. We have to think about, for example, how we are invitingstudents in by name. Our names tend to grab our attention. So,you know, in a zoom call we can see everyone's names and that's actuallyan advantage. So as we invite students in or we talk about different studentscomments, we can make sure that we're using people's names. We can thinkabout the extent to which we are trying to build community in the online classroom, the extent to which students feel like they are, you know, recognizeas unique individuals with strengths and that they're bringing into the classroom. All thosethings can help build that sense of community in the classroom and ultimately, that's, to me, what's most important. We want to be present to eachother. That's kind of the ideal, is when we can be present toone another in a classroom or even online, but in these remote classrooms we haveto, I think, maybe work more generally at building community so wefeel that sense of reciprocal obligation to one another in terms of our attention.It's really good stuff, Jim, in terms of the lecture versus active learningdebate, talk about your research findings that, rather than choosing the right modality,we really need to avoid choosing the wrong time allot means for any activity. Yeah, I have this impression and I you know, I hear allthe time from people saying, well, you the reason that students aren't payingattention and higher education is because people are lecturing, and what we need todo is get rid of the lecture. Students can't pay attention to a lecturefor forty five minutes or an hour or seventy five minutes, and that's true. But it's also true that students have trouble paying attention to a seventy fiveminute discussion. Anything that you do for a long period of time is goingto fatigue your students directed attention. That's one thing that we know for certainabout attention. It fatigues over time, it requires effort and so you know, if you're doing anything in particular that requires cognitive effort, you know it'sgoing to degrade slowly over time. So...

...to me the solution is not somuch to argue for anyone particular teaching strategy, but is to recognize that all ofour teaching strategies are going to have limits. They're going to push upagainst the limits of our students attention. The Real, the fundamental argument thatI make in the book is that we need to think about attention as anachievement. It requires effort, it requires sustained effort or especially in a classroomperiod. And so if we recognize that attention is an achievement that requires effort, then what we can think about is, okay, how am I supporting theeffort of my students to pay attention and how am I making sure I'mnot pushing that effort beyond the limits of their capacities? So we want tomake sure that we're planning our classes in ways that I like to think aboutas modular. So I might have a a fifty or seventy five minute class. Two or three things I have planned. I've thought about them deliberately in termsof how they're going to support and sustain student attention, and none ofthem are going to go for an hour or two hours without a break orwithout some kind of change. Change and variety can help renew attention. Breakscan help renew attention, but we just have to think about that we arenot pressing the limits of attention for too long. I love that as yourprimary takeaway and I love your appeal to empathy. With this book you encouragefaculty to think about a notice when they themselves find themselves both attentive and driftingthroughout their life and to become more empathetic to how hard it is for anyone, including themselves, to stay focused for an hour, like you mentioned,on anything. How do you think we convert faculty from slightly upset that ourstudents aren't hanging on our every word to understanding the reality of how impossible thatis for any human to do? Yeah, I mean in some senses is kindof an easy cell to make right now because, as I'm, youknow, talking to faculty about this and I'm giving workshops and and lectures tofaculty virtually about the subject of the book right now, the easiest thing forme to say is, look, you know, I don't you think aboutthe last departmental meeting you or for the...

...last bootsual meeting that you're rate,were you completely focus the entire time? And the answer that is almost alwaysknow, right, people are doing other things, they're getting at turning offtheir camera and getting up and walking away. Right. So, like, ifwe're doing those things, you know and we're educated about these matters andwe believe attention is really important, just imagine how difficult it is for yourstudents. So it's very easy now to kind of find sympathy or empathy withyour students and the challenges they faced and paying attention, because we're all experiencingit right now. So again, for me, that doesn't mean we haveto give up or that we have to say you know, well, youknow we can't do anything longer than five minutes or ten minutes or fifteen minutesor whatever. We can start to cultivate habits of eventual attention and we canthink more carefully about how the environment is supporting attention. That's really what wehave to do, is we have to kind of be delivered about it.And you know, I was giving that as a kind of negative example,but it turned to a positive example. I always try to encourage fact tothink about. Okay, what captures your attention? When you were on azoom Webinar or mete or whatever and you were focused? Why was that?What kept you engaged and what would that translate into in terms of your class? So we can look to our own experiences to get empathy with students andthen we can equally well look to our own experiences to try to identify strategiesand practices and solutions that are going to help keep our students engage. Themost important thing that I think we have to think about is, again,how do we create an environment that supports attention? Jim Really really, reallygreat stuff. Any next steps? Advice maybe specifically toward faculty who have historicallybeen so focused on the what they want their students to learn and trying toconvince them to start focusing more on the how that's required for true engagement totake place. Where should they start first?...

So there's two kind of strategies whichare easy takeaways from the book. There's each a different chapter and theeasy to remember teach like a playwright, teach like a poet. So whatI mean by teach like a playwright is, you know, as I was readingthe book as a start, as doing the research on the book andthinking about the fact that, you know, there are other artists who who havehad the experience for a long time now of trying to sustain the attentionof human beings through extended periods of time, and those artists are people like playwrightsand composers. So what do they do? They think about the experiencein this kind of modular, structural way. Plays have acts and scenes and breaks, intermissions. You know, you go to see a classical music performance, same thing. It's got, you know, a symphony in different partsand it's got a shorter piece a longer piece. They are, you know, might end softly and begin loud the next Pe. So like there's allkinds of thinking here about how we structure that experience and how we provide changein variety throughout it. The other thing that these kinds of experiences have typicallyis we have like a program or something which kind of tells us how isthis going to unfold? So, in terms of teaching, like a playwright, think about your classroom, the classroom experience as a modular one and tryto have, you know, a couple, two, three different very specific thingsyou are going to be doing throughout that class beard and make that structurevisible to students. This is another thing I like to encourage faculty to sortof think about your own experience. You're sitting in a conference, someone getsup there and just starts rambling away and you have no idea how long it'sgoing to go for and it's not really clear what the main idea is orwhat the structure is. How long does it take you to drift away fromthat talk? Not Very typically right, whereas if you've got a speaker whogets 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 minutes orthen you're like okay, yeah, yeah, I'm here right, and and thenhave you know, and then instructure, as the speakers they're going through,is saying okay. So that my third point. And every time youhear that your tension perks back up again because you're being guided through that experience. Yeah, by the structure of it.

So that's the first thing. teachslike a playwright, by teachs like a poet. What I mean is, you know, poets, painters again, artist. One of the things theydo for us is they they kind of reawaken our attention to the everydaywonders and routines of the world. Right, so a still life painter kind ofshows you that basket of fruit which might be sitting on your kitchen tableand you look at it a thousand times, you know, think about it,and then it's framed in that painting and suddenly opens up a new wayof understanding it. Or a poet that describes like some everyday experience that weall have, but does it in language that kind of makes you kind ofstep out and go wow, that is an amazing thing. So that's whatI want to encourage faculty to try to identify as what are teaching strategies thatcan help really reawaken the wonder of your students to your course content but alsoto the experience even of being in school. And the example I given, theone example I given the book. I give a bunch of these strategies, but my favorite and the easiest one is an art history professor who senther students to the local art museum and each week they had to look atthe same painting and write a new two page paper about it thirteen weeks ina row. And so you know, this was an instructor that said,Hey, you know, what matters here is that you learn to look carefullyand pay attention, and so I'm going to create a structure for you todo that. Yeah, I just thought that was so incredibly creative. Yeah, and really a really good demonstration of what it looks like to take attentionseriously and to give students a means of cultivating habits of attention. So teachlike a playwright, teachs like a poet. Those are my kind of too quicktakeaways in terms of practical steps for faculty. There's such good ones tohand note this episode. Jim, thanks so much for your time today.What's the best place for listeners to connect with you they have any followup questions? And where can they find this book? Visitors can check out my website atJames M Langcom, and the book at this point is available everywhere.So all the usual let's Amazon, Barnes and noble. There's actually a localbookstore in my town, Worcester, Massachusetts,...

...has signed copies that people can orderas well. It's called bedlam books, but that information is all on mywebsite too. Awesome. Thanks against so much for joining us today.Jim, you're bad. Thanks for having me. Attracting today's new post traditionallearners means adopting new enrollment strategies. Helix educations data driven, enterprise wide approachto enrollment growth is uniquely helping colleges and universities thrive in this new education landscape, and Helix has just published the second edition of their enrollment growth playbook withfifty percent brand new content on how institutions can solve today's most pressing enrollment growthchallenges, downloaded today for free at Helix Educationcom. Slash playbook. You've beenlistening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education. To ensure that you never miss anepisode, subscribe to the show and Itunes or your favorite podcast player.Thank you so much for listening. Until next time.

In-Stream Audio Search

NEW

Search across all episodes within this podcast

Episodes (230)