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 an achievement. It requires effort. You're listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education, the best professional development podcast for higher education leaders looking to grow enrollment at their college or university. Whether you're looking for fresh enrollment growth techniques and strategies or tools and resources, you've come to the right place. Let's get into the show. Welcome back to enrollment growth university, a proud member of the connect eedu podcast network. I'm Eric Olson with Helix Education, and we're here today with Dr James Lange, professor and director for the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College. Jim, welcome back to the show. Thanks for having 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 you can do about it, and discuss 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 transition just a few months ago 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 fallow two thousand, and I now direct our center for teaching excellence, where we focus 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 one century problem, and is education powerless to compete against our students other technological options? The answer is no in both cases. We definitely know that not only students but humans have been distracted for a very long time. In the book I go back to Aristotle talking about the distractable minds of ancient Greeks in the 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, thinkers talking about the distractability of the human mind. This is something we seem to have been unhappy about, the distractability of our minds, for about as long as people have 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 terms of distraction and attention, but I to turn the 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 makes it a little bit more difficult for us to stay focused because that distraction is kind of always present to us. So what's change is not the human brain that evolved over a very long period of time and the sort of architecture of attention and distraction and the human brain is going to be stable, but what's changed 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 be a little bit more concerted and deliberate in our efforts to help students retain their attention in the classroom. I love your arguments. Then, what you ended up with after this research. Let's dig in and talk about your twofold research process 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. So the traditional scholar research was looking at you know what, what do neuroscientists and cognent of psychologist tell us about how our attention systems work? What do you know contemporary technology developers tell us about how they're they're working to play on our distractable 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 the classroom to cultivate attention or reduce distraction. And of course that's the sort of more traditional research method. The other method was observation, and that was observation of lots of different things. First of all, my own teaching. I'm always kind of investigating what was effective for my own students and so looking at my own classroom experiences. Secondly, absorbing other faculty. Observed, you know, at least two, at least two or three dozen two classes over the course of the time that I was researching the book and just always kind of had an eye on like winner students drifting away here, when our students paying attention? What is a teacher doing that is having an impact on attention and distraction. And lastly, just look at the world around us, like when do people pay attention to stuff? What causes people to become distracted, not only like in the classroom, but like, you know, when you're at the dinner table or when you're out at the theater or when you're playing a game with your friends? Like, what are the things that distract us and hold 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 phone have a buzzed at me. It's a perfect reminder of how important this research is. And, Jim, your research uncovers how important the presence of the instructor is in capturing student attention. How might we translate those learnings into the remote world of many of our classrooms today, when in instructors presence is visually limited to a smaller square, within a relatively small square to begin with? Yeah, I mean that's a challenge. One of the things I argue in the 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 a classroom 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 things are all definitely more challenging in the remote classroom. So we have to think creatively. We have to think about, for example, how we are inviting students 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 actually an advantage. So as we invite students in or we talk about different students comments, we can make sure that we're using people's names. We can think about 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, recognize as unique individuals with strengths and that they're bringing into the classroom. All those things 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 each other. That's kind of the ideal, is when we can be present to one another in a classroom or even online, but in these remote classrooms we have to, I think, maybe work more generally at building community so we feel 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 learning debate, 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 all the time from people saying, well, you the reason that students aren't paying attention and higher education is because people are lecturing, and what we need to do is get rid of the lecture. Students can't pay attention to a lecture for 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 five minute discussion. Anything that you do for a long period of time is going to fatigue your students directed attention. That's one thing that we know for certain about 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's going to degrade slowly over time. So...

...to me the solution is not so much to argue for anyone particular teaching strategy, but is to recognize that all of our teaching strategies are going to have limits. They're going to push up against the limits of our students attention. The Real, the fundamental argument that I make in the book is that we need to think about attention as an achievement. It requires effort, it requires sustained effort or especially in a classroom period. 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 the effort of my students to pay attention and how am I making sure I'm not pushing that effort beyond the limits of their capacities? So we want to make sure that we're planning our classes in ways that I like to think about as 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 terms of how they're going to support and sustain student attention, and none of them are going to go for an hour or two hours without a break or without some kind of change. Change and variety can help renew attention. Breaks can help renew attention, but we just have to think about that we are not pressing the limits of attention for too long. I love that as your primary takeaway and I love your appeal to empathy. With this book you encourage faculty to think about a notice when they themselves find themselves both attentive and drifting throughout 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 our students aren't hanging on our every word to understanding the reality of how impossible that is for any human to do? Yeah, I mean in some senses is kind of an easy cell to make right now because, as I'm, you know, talking to faculty about this and I'm giving workshops and and lectures to faculty virtually about the subject of the book right now, the easiest thing for me to say is, look, you know, I don't you think about the 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 always know, right, people are doing other things, they're getting at turning off their camera and getting up and walking away. Right. So, like, if we're doing those things, you know and we're educated about these matters and we believe attention is really important, just imagine how difficult it is for your students. So it's very easy now to kind of find sympathy or empathy with your students and the challenges they faced and paying attention, because we're all experiencing it right now. So again, for me, that doesn't mean we have to give up or that we have to say you know, well, you know we can't do anything longer than five minutes or ten minutes or fifteen minutes or whatever. We can start to cultivate habits of eventual attention and we can think more carefully about how the environment is supporting attention. That's really what we have 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 to think about. Okay, what captures your attention? When you were on a zoom 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 and then we can equally well look to our own experiences to try to identify strategies and practices and solutions that are going to help keep our students engage. The most important thing that I think we have to think about is, again, how do we create an environment that supports attention? Jim Really really, really great stuff. Any next steps? Advice maybe specifically toward faculty who have historically been so focused on the what they want their students to learn and trying to convince them to start focusing more on the how that's required for true engagement to take place. Where should they start first?...

So there'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 a playwright, teach like a poet. So what I mean by teach like a playwright is, you know, as I was reading the book as a start, as doing the research on the book and thinking about the fact that, you know, there are other artists who who have had the experience for a long time now of trying to sustain the attention of human beings through extended periods of time, and those artists are people like playwrights and composers. So what do they do? They think about the experience in 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 parts and 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 all kinds of thinking here about how we structure that experience and how we provide change in variety throughout it. The other thing that these kinds of experiences have typically is we have like a program or something which kind of tells us how is this going to unfold? So, in terms of teaching, like a playwright, think about your classroom, the classroom experience as a modular one and try to have, you know, a couple, two, three different very specific things you are going to be doing throughout that class beard and make that structure visible to students. This is another thing I like to encourage faculty to sort of think about your own experience. You're sitting 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 really clear what the main idea is or what the structure is. How long does it take you to drift away from that talk? Not Very typically right, whereas if you've got a speaker who gets up there and says, okay, here's my main idea and I'm going to make in four parts and this is going to take about twenty minutes or then you're like okay, yeah, yeah, I'm here right, and and then have you know, and then instructure, as the speakers they're going through, is saying okay. So that my third point. And every time you hear 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. teachs like a playwright, by teachs 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 our attention to the everyday wonders and routines of the world. Right, so a still life painter kind of shows you that basket of fruit which might be sitting on your kitchen table and 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 way of understanding it. Or a poet that describes like some everyday experience that we all have, but does it in language that kind of makes you kind of step out and go wow, that is an amazing thing. So that's what I want to encourage faculty to try to identify as what are teaching strategies that can help really reawaken the wonder of your students to your course content but also to the experience even of being in school. And the example I given, the one 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 sent her students to the local art museum and each week they had to look at the same painting and write a new two page paper about it thirteen weeks in a row. And so you know, this was an instructor that said, Hey, you know, what matters here is that you learn to look carefully and pay attention, and so I'm going to create a structure for you to do that. Yeah, I just thought that was so incredibly creative. Yeah, and really a really good demonstration of what it looks like to take attention seriously and to give students a means of cultivating habits of attention. So teach like a playwright, teachs like a poet. Those are my kind of too quick takeaways in terms of practical steps for faculty. There's such good ones to hand 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 at James 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 local bookstore in my town, Worcester, Massachusetts,...

...has signed copies that people can order as well. It's called bedlam books, but that information is all on my website too. Awesome. Thanks against so much for joining us today. Jim, you're bad. Thanks for having me. Attracting today's new post traditional learners means adopting new enrollment strategies. Helix educations data driven, enterprise wide approach to 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 with fifty percent brand new content on how institutions can solve today's most pressing enrollment growth challenges, downloaded today for free at Helix Educationcom. Slash playbook. You've been listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show and Itunes or your favorite podcast player. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time.

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