This post is part of the “Fair Harvard?” series by Aubry Threlkeld.  A discussion about the Cultural Dimensions of Teaching and Learning at Harvard 

Professors are worried about students who multitask during lecture and rightfully so. In the article cited below “The Laptop and the Lecture,” students who spend more time on task tend to do better on the tests for that class. I’m going to ignore the numerous assumptions this article makes about who students are, their neurobiological make-up and the simplistic treatment that all students are at the same ability level. Instead I ask: why are students off task? What should professors and teaching fellows do to avoid making problematic assumptions about students’ abilities or mental health?

1) Avoid Ableist Assumptions

 You don’t become a professor because you want to talk to yourself. You do it because you want people to hear, share and interrogate your ideas. When a professor is lecturing over a sea of students staring intently at their laptops, they get discouraged. Often this results in the following:

Screen shot 2013-09-11 at 4.46.29 PM

While for many students this may just be a minor inconvenience, students with dyslexia, ADHD, or visual impairments use computers to take notes and to access cloud-based assistive technologies. People with invisible disabilities are enrolling in higher education settings in increasing numbers and they have the right to access technologies that they find useful.  Instead of continuing to focus on controlling student behaviors and inadvertently patronizing students with disabilities, maybe we should focus on what we can do with technology to engage students meaningfully with our content and approaches.

2) Incorporate Technology Instead of Banning It

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So your students are on Facebook instead of hanging off your every word. Or shopping on Amazon. Or watching the latest viral video. There’s a solution: incorporate social media into your lecture. Ask students to crowd source questions using social media and see what their friends know about a topic. Use clickers to quiz students before and during the lecture. Inevitably the misunderstandings that need attention will emerge.

But be careful. Check to see if the digital tools you use are accessible to different students. Consider using sans serif fonts, providing materials for lecture in advance of class for review, and using files that can be read aloud via text to voice software (avoid scanned pictures of text). A recent Boston Globe article entitled “Digital Technologies and the Disabled” highlights and personalizes these issues.

3) Plan Interactive Lectures

Another obvious solution here is to incorporate movement into activities embedded in your lectures. If students have to move, it forces them to refocus on the given task and makes it harder for them to continue to be off task. If you do an activity every 15-20 minutes then you can be fairly certain you are doing your best to root out off-task behaviors.

Screen shot 2013-09-11 at 4.45.47 PM  This is college. If students want to interact with each other, maybe we should plan that into our lectures. There are other ways of doing this of course that don’t just involve movement: have students turn and talk to each other regarding a prompt, or have students e-mail or text a written response to another student in the room and have them respond. This can alleviate concerns of those students who need to know their environments are secure in order to be safe and can be relieving for autistic students who may struggle with spontaneous changes in the schedule or be fearful of social interaction with a stranger.


For more information, check out the links below:

The Laptop and the Lecture:

The Effects of Multitasking on Learning Environments:

The Boston Globe:

Digital education shouldn’t bypass disabled:

2 thoughts on “Multitasking

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. I loved the way to put together the teaching with social media and make plan into your lecture that students interacted with each other.

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