Look around any college classroom these days and you’ll see students who are focused and attentive – though not necessarily on the curriculum.
A study by psychology professors at Wilkes University found that 91 percent of students admit to having used their phones to text during class, even though one third of those surveyed agreed that the student sending the message would be affected “through a loss of attention and/or poor grades in the class.”
“I think technology is something we’re just used to,” said Ryan Alverson, 21, a senior at California’s Santa Clara University. “As a generation we’re accustomed to always having some kind of distraction and that seems to spill over into the classroom.”
This rise in technological distractions has frustrated many university professors, including Santa Clara English professor Heather Julien, who has been teaching First Year Writing for almost 15 years. Julien says that she has always supported the use of technology in the classroom, but that the increase in the number of students texting and using Facebook has brought her close to banning electronics from her classes.
“I really hate being the police and banning technology,” said Julien, a self proclaimed technophile. “I’m disturbed by the fact that I can’t have students have laptops open all the time because the reality is that half of them are just clicking back and forth to Facebook.”
Not all professors find that technology is to blame for students’ short attention spans. A recent study from chemistry professors at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC revealed that a student’s difficulty in maintaining focus may be due to human nature.
While previous studies found that students were able to maintain focus for periods of 10-20 minutes during lectures, the Catholic study discovered that students actually “alternate between being engaged and non-engaged in ever-shortening cycles throughout a lecture segment.”
The study found that students reported attention lapsed as early as 30 seconds into a lecture and could bounce back and forth between engagement and non-engagement in intervals as short as two or three minutes.
Dr. Diane Bunce is a chemistry educator at Catholic University who studies why people struggle learning the discipline and one of the professors who conducted the attention study. According to Bunce, the ability of students to focus and learn in the classroom depends not only on their own personal motivation, but also on the teaching methods employed by the professor.
“Learning is a series of stumbling,” said Bunce. “We can’t just lecture and then give (students) an achievement test. We have to give them a chance to try out new knowledge.”
The study found that professors who use interactive methods such as demonstrations or clickers that require students to answer questions throughout the class saw an increase in focus over those professors who only lectured. Not only was attention heightened during those isolated time periods, said Bunce, but also in the lecture minutes immediately following the interactive lesson.
But regardless of a distraction’s cause, students who spend precious classroom minutes out of focus are also failing to maximize the thousands of dollars spent on university tuition fees.
For a typical 15-hour school week, an out of state student in the University of California school system spends approximately $76 per hour on classroom instruction. At Santa Clara, the hourly cost jumps to $87 an hour. At Harvard, tuition costs rise to over $125 for every sixty minutes of instruction, a hefty price to pay to browse the internet or chat on Facebook.
And with a college degree a necessity in today’s competitive workforce, students are perhaps taking their classroom experience for granted, said Julien.
“In this day and age of virtually required higher education,” she said, “a lot of those folks may not have a great intrinsic value of education.”
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