Friday, October 30, 2009

Those Multitasking Students!

Bill Tancer's Click laments, “with the pervasiveness of wireless hot spots and laptops that have built-in wireless capability, conference audiences have turned keynotes into multitasking events, half-listening to presentations while simultaneously answering email and browsing the web.” Most of us must guiltily admit that he's right: we don't pay full attention at conferences anymore, whether the conference is virtual or face-to-face, unless the speaker does something to grab and hold our attention.

"Multitasking" is a misnomer: we aren't really able to do several things at the same time. Joe Medina points this out on Brain Rules: although we can talk and breathe at the same time, we can't really read a book and listen to a conversation simultaneously. What we do, rather, is quickly switch from one task to another, and back again, and the speed with which we switch makes us think we're doing all of them at the same time. As I type this blog I'm listening to music, but the lyrics are escaping me until I pause long enough to give them my full attention.

We have the same problem as teachers. What should we as teachers do to keep students engaged? Should we set up rules that ban distractions? Are there attention-grabbing methods/tricks that work during those critical first five minutes of class? Can we recommend certain behaviors to our students to help them concentrate?

Here are a few suggestions, and (as always), I welcome yours:
  1. Remember the 10-minute rule (See Brain Rules). You have about 10 minutes to get and hold attention before you lose them. And once they're gone, it's tough to get them back.
  2. Don't blame students for having other things to do. We all have other obligations. Let them know how long you need them in your presentation/lecture, and don't keep them longer than that.
  3. Archive your session so students can return to it at a later time (or more than once) to catch up on what they missed while Oprah was talking.
  4. Work in engagement exercises, polls, and other interactive opportunities in your session. See previous posts for suggestions.
  5. Give each student a job to do during the class.

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