Monday, February 22, 2010

Why I don't let students use calculators

I don't teach math, but in my classes students need to use some basic math to analyze the data they collect. I was horrified a couple years ago when I had students pulling out their calculators to divide 0.05 by 5. I forced them all to put the calculators away and do it by hand. I must admit, however, that I have been a little more lax in doing the problems "properly" (i.e. keeping track of units as well as numbers) than my high school chemistry teacher would have advised. I have just assumed the students knew what the units should be. After watching this on youtube, I will never make that assumption again. I will insist that they show their work...all their work.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Technology, Teaching, and Learning

I’ve been thinking a lot about technology, teaching, and learning. Technology now touches every aspect of college teaching from classroom management (what do you do about cell phones?) to how students think (has constant “multitasking” diminished their ability to concentrate?). You can see the topic popping up all over the media, from more traditional sources (Frontline, NPR) to Web 2.0 (YouTube). Everything I’ve read, heard, and seen raises very interesting questions and suggests novel challenges, but there are very few answers. Here are two of the recurring themes:

Students in the “Net Generation” are constantly using technology

You know this if you have been with anyone who is under 30 years old in the last couple years. It is unusual to see a student without a cell phone up to their ear or peaking out of their pocket so they can check their text messages. It is no longer rude to talk to the person you are sitting with at a restaurant while emailing on your Blackberry. Two students in my class last semester took their cell phones out during the final to “check the time” and “use the calculator”. In the past I would not have believed them, but it is so natural to the students to use their phones for everything, that they probably didn’t think twice about it.

So, what does this connection to technology have to do with teaching and learning? If we can find effective ways to incorporate technology into our courses, we will improve our chances of engaging the students and helping them learn the concepts, skills, and information we want them to get out of our classes. OK, what does that mean? I don’t know, exactly. It could mean small steps or a complete revolution in college teaching. For example, I have taken a couple small steps in my classes, such as having a 30 second cell phone check (otherwise phones should not be out) and posting a YouTube Playlist as a study aid. I have also thought about completely redesigning my course to use free online resources instead of a textbook (which I just found out costs about $180 new). Whether it can be done in small steps or needs to be a leap forward to catch up to where the students are technologically, technology for technology’s sake won’t work.

Multitasking decreases a person’s ability to concentrate for long periods of time

Scientific studies have shown that heavy multitaskers cannot effectively switch cognitive tasks. Essentially, they are constantly distracted. If you use technology even a little bit you have experienced this. I have switched back and forth between my email and writing this blog several times already. So, how do we expect students to sit and listen to straight lecture for an hour? How do we “train” them to perform intellectually demanding tasks, like critically analyzing a novel, searching for trends in reams of data, or writing a single coherent argument in an essay (the Frontline episode discusses students writing in “paragraphs”)?

I think there are two disparate answers to these questions. First, we can’t just lecture for an hour straight anymore. When I was in grad school, the rule of thumb was that students can pay attention to one thing for twenty minutes, then you have to do something else to “refresh” them. Even a little stretch break might be enough. Forget the twenty minute rule now. I’d give the students ten minutes, or even five.

As far as intellectually demanding tasks, we can’t give in on that. That is why we are here as a university, particularly as a “public liberal arts” university as it says on our advertisements. Our job is to teach students to analyze information and think critically. We may be able to spark their interest by using technology and moving away from the traditional lecture format, but we still somehow must move the students toward the ability to concentrate on a single intellectual task and follow through with cogent, logical thought. This is (at least to me) a daunting challenge.

Where do we go from here? I look forward to discussing this as faculty. Please share your thoughts by commenting on this blog and raising the issue with fellow faculty members. I hope to start an ongoing, productive discussion on where technology, teaching, and learning are headed in the 21st century.