“There are many students who think they can do many things at once — that they can answer email, that they can listen to music, that they can write on their essay — and have no cost to the quality of each of them,” Patrick O’Sullivan, director of the Center of Teaching, Learning and Technology said. “That’s not true.”
Special to Mustang News
When psychology professor Gary Laver looks out at General Psychology (PSY 202), he can only see backs of laptops. He has no idea what students are actually doing.
“I don’t know if they’re watching a movie, playing a game, reading the paper, solitaire, taking notes,” Laver said. “I have no idea and they can get away with it. They’re more invisible in that way.”
So Laver, chair of the psychology and child development department, got together with psychology professor Charles Slem a few years ago to see what students were really up to. Slem watched from the A-V booth in the back of Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre — where the lecture was held — to see what students would look at on their laptops.
Laver and Slem found that 52 percent of students with laptops were viewing content irrelevant to the class.
What he saw was amazing, Slem said.
“I saw someone watching a movie; totally unrelated,” Slem said. “It seemed that Facebook was popping up quite a bit. There were some women who were really interested in shoes.”
Laver had suspected that many students were not always using their laptops for notes, he said.
The PSY 202 lecture room was the perfect setup for the study. The A-V booth is positioned above and behind the students and gave Slem a great view of laptop screens. He observed individual students and took snapshots of the class, so they could categorize the content on the screens as related or unrelated to lecture.
Laver and Slem presented the study at the 2011 International Conference on Teaching of Psychology in Vancouver, British Columbia. People at the conference weren’t surprised, Laver said.
“I had a lot of people coming up saying, ‘Oh yeah, you’re just confirming what I’ve suspected for a long time,’” Laver said.
Students’ smartphones, tablets and laptops can be both distractions and constructive tools in lectures, said Patrick O’Sullivan, director of the Center of Teaching, Learning and Technology.
Students may think they are multitasking, but they’re not. Multitasking is nothing but constant uni-tasking, he said.
“There are many students who think they can do many things at once — that they can answer email, that they can listen to music, that they can write on their essay — and have no cost to the quality of each of them,” O’Sullivan said. “That’s not true.”
The brain can only handle so many tasks until it affects the work it produces. When someone switches from one task to another they lose continuity and efficiency, he said.
Students’ attention spans have changed since Laver was an undergraduate in the 1980s, he said.
“If you take careful attention span measurements from those radically-separated two generations, there’s no question that college-aged students currently expect information to be presented in certain ways that didn’t exist at the time I was in college,” Laver said. “As a consequence, their skill set — part of which is attention span — has really taken a hit.”
However, technology doesn’t have to be the enemy. Electronic devices can be positive, powerful learning tools in the classroom, O’Sullivan said.
“While it can be a distraction, it’s also true that students can take notes and check facts on the web. Or something from lecture may spark a question that they want to get answered,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s hard to know the difference, even when you look at these findings.”
That wasn’t the case in PSY 202. Slem said there were no instances where a student was looking up information on their laptops to clarify the lecture.
The point of going to lecture is to actually listen, Laver said. The structure of the PSY 202 class doesn’t provide enough time for students to explore on their own during class, Laver said.
“Even if the site was conceptually related and appropriate at some other time, by our definition I think it would be inappropriate for them to be doing anything else besides listening and taking notes,” Laver said.
Biological sciences junior Tyler Horton took PSY 202 this past spring. Horton said he often saw students on websites that had nothing to do with the class material, such as YouTube and StumbleUpon.
Most of the students in PSY 202 are freshmen and sophomores, and students who are new to college can find themselves getting distracted when they can’t keep up with the lecture, Horton said.
“If I were to put myself in that position and I had a laptop out, the chances of me being on Facebook would be 95 percent of the time, which is the reason I don’t bring a laptop to class,” he said.