On laptops and cell phones in the classroom

The academic side of my Twitter feed has been abuzz recently over this New York Times article, in which a University of Michigan economics professor explains why she bans laptops and other personal electronics in her classroom.  Laptops, she explains, are a distraction, both to those using them and to the students around them.  She also references an idea that has been around for a while, backed up by some research studies: that people retain more information when they write notes by hand as opposed to typing.

Much of the criticism of this article’s attitude focused on its treatment of students with disabilities.  The author allows laptop use as a disability accommodation, admitting that it singles out students who need such accommodation.  It also assumes that no student without a formal diagnosis would ever benefit from typing notes or Googling an unfamiliar term on the fly.

Me, I take notes by hand, because my brain likes it.  I have a very visual memory, and seeing words laid out on a page is much easier for my mind to deal with.  I kept handwritten research notebooks for my dissertation; I keep a physical day planner; heck, I wrote an outline for this post by hand.  I read the research about handwritten notes being good for learning and it makes sense to me.

But not everyone’s brain works like mine, a fact that is obvious in a multitude of ways.  Some people enjoy talking on the phone, some people like music without words, and some people learn better by typing notes.  So while I think it’s fine to encourage paper-based note-taking, university students should ultimately be allowed to take notes in whatever way works best for them.

The distraction factor is a trickier issue.  The internet is awfully distracting, and large screens spread that distraction around.  And it is kind of rude to be obviously on Facebook when someone’s trying to teach.

That being said, here is a partial list of internet-free things that I have done in university lecture halls: doodled; brainstormed projects; read the textbook; read journal articles; read the newspaper; done crossword puzzles; done Sudoku; done homework for that class; done homework for another class; planned my schedule for the next day/week; wrote notes to the person next to me; and tallied how many times the speaker said “um.”  It is incredibly difficult to maintain full focus through an hour-long lecture, even a good one (which, unfortunately, many are not).  It is especially difficult when you’re taking medication that makes you drowsy, as I was for several years.  I could doodle and read and whatnot, or I could straight-up fall asleep in the second row.

I had finished all my required grad classes by the time I became a parent, but was still attending various seminars and colloquia.  My cell phone came with me then, because I needed to know right away if something happened at daycare.  I am now firmly against “no visible cell phones” policies (exams excluded), because keeping my silent phone in view next to my notebook was less disruptive than tucking it away on vibrate.

In an ideal world, we could just trust university students to be adults, take responsibility for their own learning, and be politely discreet about texting.  I did very well in all my classes.  Occasionally I didn’t pay enough attention at the beginning and had to course-correct as the semester progressed.  However, I wasn’t always terribly discreet about doing stuff in class, and I can assure you from my experience as a TA that other students aren’t either.  We aren’t all as good at self-regulating as we’d like to think.

So I’m sympathetic to professors who just want students to stop playing on their phones already.  It’s not necessarily about ego and respect for them, either: plenty of instructors genuinely want to help their students learn and believe (probably correctly much of the time) that cutting back on internet distractions would help.  Instructors—especially those employed as adjuncts rather than full-time faculty—also face various pressures about grades and class performance.  And it’s frustrating when students seem to be ignoring you.  I get it.  Nevertheless, it’s not appropriate to completely ban devices in the classroom.

What has your experience been with laptops and cell phones, as a student and/or instructor?  Which classroom policies work really well?  Which don’t?

The fallacy of teaching by derivation

A large chunk of my research time this week was spent trying to teach myself a couple of relevant background concepts.  Whenever I find myself in this situation, the first thing that happens is that I feel really dense.  I’m an Nth-year PhD student, how could I not understand that topic?  The second thing that happens is that I get frustrated about the way the subject is presented in most references.

Without giving away too much about my field of study, let me just say that it can involve a lot of math.  But, for the most part, the math is applied: it’s used to describe real things that exist and happen.

The topics I was looking up this week were almost universally presented in texts and notes in this fashion:

  1. Brief introduction to topic.  We’re talking 2 or 3 sentences.
  2. Extensive, step-by-step derivation of the key equation(s) used to describe the phenomenon.  Usually these equations are named after people.
  3. [optional] Another handful of sentences explaining the results from part 2.

And, ta-da!  You know the math, so now you know the concept!

Except… my brain doesn’t work that way.  It doesn’t easily convert gammas and rhos and plus signs to a mental picture of real physical things.

It’s not that I’m bad at math.  I’m good at math, in fact.  Very good.  I don’t mean to brag or nuthin’, but my partial differential equations professor in college asked me for my notes at the end of the semester.  It can be time-consuming to work through derivations, but I can absolutely do it.

And it’s not that the math isn’t important.  Mathematics is a critical tool for describing, interpreting, and predicting the world.  If you’re in a highly applied field, like, say, architectural engineering, being able to do the math correctly could make the difference between a building staying up or collapsing on the people inside of it.

But knowing the math is not the same thing as knowing the concept.  Teaching the former does not automatically confer upon your students an understanding of the latter.

My brain isn’t the only one that struggles to convert equations to conceptual understanding.  During my time as a PhD student, I’ve been a teaching assistant (read: lab instructor, grader, substitute teacher, and cell-phone patroller) for a number of introductory classes.  Some of those classes were geared toward students hoping to major in the subject, while others were designed for folks trying to check a box on their list of Gen Ed requirements.

It turns out that there are exactly two differences between these groups of students.

One, the majors are significantly more motivated than the non-majors, on average.

And two, the majors are better at math.

You know what wasn’t a difference?  Their conceptual understanding.  The majors could rearrange equations and calculate numerical answers like nobody’s business, but they made the same basic errors as the Gen Ed students when asked to explain how things work.  All that math we were showing them didn’t help them build a better mental framework of the fundamentals.

So why do we do this?  Why is “teaching by derivation” the default in science and engineering?

Is it that there’s a subset of people whose brains do readily make the connection between math and concepts, and those are the people who go on to be STEM professors?

Is it that (and I suspect this is most likely) that our professors are just presenting the material the same way they were taught?

Or is it that (and I really do wonder if this might be a little true, too) that they don’t fully grasp the underlying concepts themselves?

Whatever the case, if you are teaching science or engineering, or putting together lecture notes, or writing a textbook, I beg of you: please, please, please explain the concepts before you go through all of the derivations.  If the derivations reveal new concepts, explain those too!  Use words!  Use pictures!  Be different!

Your students will thank you.