What To Tell Students About Distractions

At this time of the year many academic librarians are gearing up for their fall instruction sessions. While much of the planning focuses on developing active learning techniques, integrating new resources or introducing new instructional technology like clickers, I wonder how many librarians are thinking about how they’ll deal with electronic distractions. Not only can students tune out a library instructor with their personal communication gadgets or a laptop, but in a hands-on computer lab setting putting a student in front of a computer is akin to saying, “Please go ahead and surf the web or IM your friends while I try to teach you something”. Sure, you might have a computer control system in your classroom, but that can be a bit of a hassle for a short-term session and who really wants to use it just to bring the hammer down on wayward students.

So if you’ve that found distracted students represent a challenge in your short-term sessions, you can well imagine that this can be an incredible problem for faculty with a multi-class teaching load. This past year has seen a number of faculty and institutions declaring outright bans on any type of electronic device in the classroom. Some critics of that action say that giving students access to the web can enhance their learning. For example, students can quickly search for additional information that can contribute to a topic discussion. An instructor can direct students to a website that contains images or primary documents that can deepen a student’s knowledge of the subject matter. But without a tight control on student access, texting, IMing and surfing can quickly make a mockery of learning.

Determined to prevent that from happening in his courses this faculty member makes clear in his syllabus how he intends to deal with this problem. To address what he calls the “divided attention” problem, an entire section of the course syllabus is devoted to what is an extended warning about texting, surfing or otherwise using gadgets in class. But first he appeals to the students’ intellect. He writes:

The brain has got to give up on one of the tasks in order to effectively accomplish the other. Hidden behind all the hype about multi-tasking, then, is this sad truth: it makes you slower and dumber. For this reason alone you should seek to avoid the problem of divided attention when you are in class. But there’s another reason, too: technology often causes us to lose our senses when it comes to norms of polite behavior and, as a result, perfectly lovely people become unbelievably rude.

It appears to appeal as a method for reducing student distraction because a number of faculty have requested permission to use his exact wording in their own syllabi. Academic librarians are without the luxury of a syllabus for their instruction sessions nor do they typically hold the power of the grade. But there is probably no reason why a librarian couldn’t begin a session with a statement that cautions students about the dangers of distraction. The real challenge is whether or not a library instructor wants to throw down the gauntlet and actually issue a warning along the lines of “If I catch you texting or IMing I’ll just ask you to leave – and let your professor know you didn’t make it till the end of the session.” A bit heavy handed perhaps? Maybe it’s best to check with the instructor first. See if he or she has a policy on classroom distractions. If so, then a better approach may be to let students know that policy extends to your session as well – along with any related consequences for unacceptable behaviors.

I’ve been out of the library classroom for about a year now – such is the life of an academic library administrator. But I’ll be doing a few instruction sessions this fall to help out with a massive instructional undertaking for our freshman Analytical Reading & Writing course where we’ll be doing close to 200 sessions in multiple sections for this one course alone. I’ll be interested to see what sort of distracted students I encounter – and how I manage those situations.

11 thoughts on “What To Tell Students About Distractions

  1. I don’t believe in the heavy hand techniques. However, before beginning an instruction session, I tell classes that they are sitting in front of a computer and it is really tempting and easy to check e-mail, surf, IM their girlfriend/boyfriend, etc., because I’m tempted too when in similar situations. But their instructor/professor has taken time to bring them here for an important reason and what I’m going to teach them will be useful during their time in school and beyond. So if they want an edge over some of their peers in other classes, they might want to pay attention for the next 50 minutes or so. It doesn’t stop all of the mouse clicking and typing but it does seem to help. I’ve never heard a complaint from faculty yet.

    I’m actually more discouraged by the lack of response I get when throwing a question out to the class, especially when it’s something simple like generating keywords for a search.

  2. The problem with the tactic of asking the distracted to leave, and passing that information on to their professors, is that you as the librarian don’t know their names, and it’s extremely disruptive to try to find all that out for disciplinary purposes.

    For cases where you have 200 sessions for a big first year writing course, can you get the course teaching assistants to attend the sessions also? They know their students and the course policies, and it could be up to them whether and how to monitor how many distractions are on screen.

    Even with no one checking over the students’ shoulders, I think it’s less bad in a computer lab than in a lecture hall. Our eyes are drawn to screens, so in a lecture hall where only maybe a third of the students have laptops, up to two-thirds of the students can be distracted from the professor and their notes by the other students’ irrelevant screens. But if everyone has their own lab computer, then they’ll pay attention to that screen, so at least students who choose to IM or whatever are only hurting themselves.

  3. I take a different approach and try to use some humor. As students come into class, I tell them, “Go ahead and check Facebook now, because you’ll need to turn it off once I start.” They seem amused that I even know about Facebook. Sometimes I add in a faux-threat, like if I find them on Facebook during the session, I’ll read everyone their wall postings.

    Then if a student is on Facebook during class, I might ask them loudly if they’re looking for my profile to friend me (again, a joke–I don’t have students as my friends on Facebook).

    Too much talking, by the librarian, in any library session is bad. If students are IMing the whole time, maybe it’s an indicator the librarian should incorporate more active learning into his or her teaching. What’s that saying about a poor carpenter who blames his tools? A poor teacher, then, blames Facebook.

  4. I tell them a few things: headphones (even if they are off), texting, cell phones, IM’ etc are not allowed. I have a very very short period of their time to try to teach them just a few useful things, and their attention is appreciated. Furthermore, what I am going to show them is going to make their research much more efficient and easier, so its a win-win siltation.

    Most of my classes are in the one hour session, and classroom control technology is a friend. My screen in the front of the room is hard to read from the back, I take over their screens when I want them to understand a process (such as using the cross-linking tool). The rest of the time, they have control. Its not like it has to be an entirely controlled session.

    Also, it helps if you work with the instructor beforehand so that the students know exactly what research is expected of them; and they have an idea of their topics. That way as I am doing my searches, they can do their own. After the first time they start facebooking, and look up and realize they can’t figure out where and I or what I am doing, but they COULD be looking for an article NOW instead of later, they usually start paying attention.

    Frankly, if they are being that easily distracted, then maybe its time to think about how much talking is going on by the teacher vs active learning by the students.

  5. After teaching small classes, large classes, classes with computers, lecture-style classes, freshmen on up through PhD students, my approach at this point has become this: as long as they are not distracting their fellow students or disrupting class or talking when I’m talking, it is their loss if they choose to do something else. Most students are not trying to be rude. Just this morning, a young woman’s cell phone rang loudly during our library session. She promptly turned it off, without me drawing any attention to it. If a student does become disruptive or distracting to others, I then draw attention to it.

  6. I have not had the opportunity to teach a librarian instruction class yet, but I do teach a survey history course as an adjunct faculty member at our university. In my syllabus, it clearly states that electronic devices are to be off during class. However, I decided to rethink this policy for 2 important reasons: 1) security – I have my cell phone with me at all times and it is on vibrate. I allow my students to keep their cells on their desks as long as they are on vibrate or silent and 2) a couple of my students told me they prefer to take notes on their laptops and asked my permission on the first day of class BEFORE bringing them to class. They sit in the back of the class and they are doing very well with question and answer sessions. If they were to become disruptive, I’d change my mind.

  7. I agree with libwitch: I use classroom broadcasting software (like SynchronEyes) as a tool to improve student learning, not as a means of imposing myself upon them. I’ve had comments from students that they like having me broadcast to their screen so they can really see what I’m doing as I demonstrate. And I make sure that there’s a balance of that and hands-on time. Technology is just another tool — even a white board is technology! It’s value (or not) lies in how I use it.

  8. I like the line about how technology can turn perfectly lovely people rude. I had a student come up to the ref desk the other day, while texting, and ask for help. I started to help as I figured she was about finished her text, but when she sat down and kept going I asked her to put it aside while I helped her. She quickly did exactly that, and looked more embarrassed than anything else.

    As for distractions during instruction, I’m with Beth – I’m more worried about the dead silence in the room after I ask a question, than I am about the students on Facebook.

  9. Hmmm, there’s probably a reason that they are not paying attention, and that the silences can be deafening when we ask questions of students….library one-shots are incredibly ineffective, and for the most part, pretty boring from the student’s perspective. Add on to that that librarians aren’t seen as anything more than book shelvers by the average student, and I would say we have a recipe for disaster!

    Generally, under the one-shot model, we don’t have the personal relationship with the students that the course instructor does, so we are really in a pretty impossible situation when it comes to making learning relevant to the course content and engaging with students where they are, no matter how closely we work with the course instructor. Add to that the limitations of a one-shot session, where most of the time we are asked to just teach access, as opposed to use, organization, application or evaluation of information, and it’s surprising that as many of them engage with us as they do. I think many of us do a great job under these circumstances, however, I question whether this is really the best way to facilitate information literacy on our campuses.

    So let’s work as instruction librarians to move away from this one-shot nonsense and move toward either teaching credit bearing courses where we can engage with students over the course of a term, and/or turn our efforts to faculty development work so that they can teach this stuff. I hate to say it, but our content means a heck of a lot more to students coming from the course instructors than it does from us!

  10. It helps if students have a real assignment, know they will have time to work on it, and I keep instruction to an absolute minimum. After 23 years, I’ve come to accept the fact that the vast majority of students/library users just aren’t interested. They prefer point-of-use instruction but that isn’t really possible, is it?

    A required research skills course is what students need. There’s no stomach for it here, so we soldier along with lots of one-shot IL sessions that go in one ear, out the other. And the faculty complain, complain, complain about the students’ inability to do decent research.

  11. Why not use facebook to teach them the information literacy techniques? Why tell them not to use it? Why not come up with ways to teach them what you want them to learn by using the technology that they want to use?

    This would be especially helpful if an academic library had a text to your librarian method of interaction, an IM interaction, facebook search tools for JSTOR and your library, etc.

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