Outstanding discussion in class today (I thought) about the perils of multi-tasking in class, in particular texting. Prompted by this provocative summary of the data by one of PSU’s most thoughtful Professors, Julia Kregneow, I first showed a short video summarizing a Stanford study claiming that those who think they multitask best are actually the worst at it. I then posted this rather sobering graph from a paper by Duncan et al. from the Astronomy Education Review.

Duncan et al graph

The graph shows a correlation between the amount of texting students reported doing during a one hour Gen Ed astronomy course, and their final grade. The final grade axis is a little weird, but so far as I can tell, texting at all is associated with dropping a grade (so going from an A to a B or a B to a C etc.).

I described it to the students, and then after a few think-pair-share minutes, I called on some of them by name (chosen at random from a ‘hat’ – Julia assured me that would work — and it does!). The discussion was good. The study is correlational, so might not indicate causality, but we can probably rule out reverse causation (it was the final grade, taken some months later). Some plausible third variables can be identified (maybe less engaged students text more out of boredom?) and we had a good discussion of how we could make the study experimental (should we as a class try it?*).

So pedagogically valuable, but more so, I think, because the students were highly engaged because it is them (well almost them: are they like astronomy Gen Ed students from Colorado?). Of course, I have no idea if the discussion will make my students text less in class. And it does raise the question of whether I am doing them a favor by having a phone-linked Comment Wall running live in class and asking them text-in questions. I asked the class if I should give it all up and ban their phones. I did not get a clear answer. For my money, a ban that is unenforceable is a recipe for disaster – and besides, I like the students texting my comment wall in class in real time. They do too. And everyone hates clickers.

Julia’s solution? Ban electronics in most of the class room, and let those who want to be distracted sit together on one side, leaving the others to learn. And she uses colored paper signs instead of clickers. Low tech and popular, evidently.

Post-script – while multitasking at the end of class (answering questions, shutting down my electronics, collecting my stuff) I put the names of the students I’d called on back in the hat – so they might get called on again, despite my promise it would be just once in the semester. No one should multi-task……

*No. I’d need an IRB. Red tape kills again.

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