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.