Saturday, August 18, 2018

New Book Coming: Teaching Distracted Minds

The first time that my syllabus mentioned anything about the use of technology in class was in the spring of 2008, when I wrote the following policy into my Argument and Persuasion course:
  • PUT AWAY AND TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONES!  If your phone rings or vibrates in class, or I see you checking it or texting, you will be absent for that day.
LOOK AT ALL THOSE CAPS AND EVEN AN EXCLAMATION POINT! I WAS REALLY CONCERNED ABOUT THIS! I REALLY DIDN'T WANT STUDENTS TO USE THEIR CELL PHONES!

This policy likely arose from some student who was texting during in class the previous semester, so you can trace back my concern with this issue at least ten years, and probably longer. Students on my campus have been slower than those on other campuses to bring their laptops into class, so at that time cell phone were the only in-class technology that concerned me. 

Ten years later, both the concern and the policy seem almost quaint. I haven't heard a cell phone ring in class for at least a few years now, and I no longer have a strict attendance policy. We do enough low-stakes writing exercises or other activities in class that students who miss class will gradually bleed away so many points that it makes it difficult for them to pass.

The vexing question of how to address student use of technology in class has become an increasingly fascinating one for me, though. I see faculty all over the spectrum on their policies about the use of technology in class, read arguments in academic publications about whether we should ban phones and laptops from class (and I've written some of those arguments myself), and pored through lots of research about the use of technology in class and how it impacts student learning.
The coffee shop where I like to work, with it's many distractions.

Almost all of that research connects to the larger cultural debates we have been having about attention and distraction. Are our cell phones destroying our ability to pay attention? Are students these days incapable of sitting down and focusing on difficult texts, because they are so used to scrolling continuously through their phones? Has the advent of our latest technologies changed the human brain? Do we need to re-think our education systems for our tech-saturated world? Or should we focus instead on teaching students to focus their minds, using techniques like mindfulness?

A few years ago I began really thinking about this question in earnest, exploring the research on attention and distraction, and reading what both learning theorists and working teachers had to say about these issues, about their students, and about their policies. What I found, especially in the literature of attention and distraction, was how fundamental this question was to so many aspects of our lives. Neuroscientists, for example, debate about the extent to which our attention systems form our very consciousness. Philosophers consider what it means to think with and without attention. Psychologists point out that attention to one thing means blindness to many others. And teachers wonder whether, without attention, we can learn anything at all.

I always know that I've hit about a good book topic when I can't stop wondering about a question. And a good two years after I began thinking about these issues in depth, I'm still curious and wondering. That curiosity has led me into historical and philosophical texts which demonstrate that we have been concerned about distraction for a good two millennia now. It has led me into the work of neuroscientists who explain why our minds are subject to distraction, and how that might have benefited our early brains. It has led me to the work of psychologists who describe creative thinking in terms that sound an awful lot like distracted thinking.   

All of this is prelude to say that I'm pleased to announce that my next book, Teaching Distracted Minds, will be published by Basic Books in 2020. (I buried the lede for this blog post way down here at the end, just to see if you were paying attention.)  I'm still on the research journey, but the ideas that will form the core arguments of the book are in place, and I hope I will be able to offer readers some new historical and scientific perspectives, some creative solutions for the problems that educators at all levels are having with distracted students in class, and some new ideas for how careful thinking about attention and distraction can improve the education we provide for students, especially at the secondary and post-secondary levels.

I'm very grateful to my agent and to the editors at Basic Books for helping to make this project come to life.  I was fortunate enough to have multiple presses interested in the book, and Basic made a very convincing case for their ability to bring the book to the widest audience possible. I can't wait to get writing, and to get the book in your hands as soon as humanly possible.

In the meantime, to all my fellow teachers out there, have a great start to the new academic year.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Want Good Grades? Ditch that Highlighter

The following (slightly adapted) essay was written for the Assumption College student newspaper, Le Provocateur, and appeared in the January 31st, 2018 issue.

I work and teach in a beautiful new building on my campus, one that contains many informal study spaces for our students.  As I walk through the building each day, I see some students poring over their work in comfy chairs or empty classrooms and conference rooms, and others gathering together in small groups to discuss projects or prepare for classes. 

Witnessing all of this informal study makes the heart of this teacher glad—except for the fact that I see so many students engaged in two unhelpful learning activities: highlighting and re-reading. It might surprise you to learn that these two beloved study activities, ones in which students almost universally engage, have very little effect on your long-term learning.  Worse still, highlighting course material and then re-reading it later gives you the illusion that you know your stuff, without any of the actual learning.


In 2013, a team of psychologists who study human learning published an overview of ten study techniques in which students commonly engage. They examined the bodies of research behind each of these strategies, and rated them from low utility (or not very useful at all) to high utility (very useful).  Their findings, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, will likely come as unwelcome news to most students.

Both highlighting (or underlining) and rereading were rated as having very low utility.  Summarizing a large body of research on highlighting, the authors conclude: “In most situation that have been examined and with most participants, highlighting does little to boost performance” on quizzes or exams.  The findings on re-reading are almost exactly the same.  In other words, across a wide range of experiments on learning, in different disciplines and with students of different ages, these two strategies simply did not produce effective, long-term learning.

You might object that you have been highlighting and re-reading course materials for your entire school career, and you’ve done just fine.  You probably have this impression for two reasons.  First, highlighting and re-reading can be effective for very short-term learning.  If your only goal is to survive a test you have on Monday morning at 9:00 am, and it’s 11:00 pm on Sunday night, re-reading highlighted passages might help you get through that exam.  But whatever you “learned” during that re-reading cram session will fade from your mind very quickly. Your learning will be shallow and short-lived.

You also might believe that highlighting and-rereading work because you have no ability to make a scientific comparison between highlighting or re-reading and other, more effective learning strategies.  If you could clone yourself and the universe, you could study for your history exam using highlighting, and your clone could study for the exact same exam using a different strategy.  Afterward, you could compare your scores, and see who received the better exam score, you or your clone.  Without the ability to conduct that kind of experiment, you have no easy way to understand how other strategies might prove even more effective than the ones you are already using.

If you are currently earning all A’s without much effort, you should probably keep doing whatever you are doing, and can stop reading right now.  But if you’d like to understand how to study in ways that will increase your long-term learning, three study strategies—all of which have been proven effective by mounds of research—will help you become a much more effective and efficient student.

Practice Testing.  Memory researchers have learned in recent decades that our brains have enormous storage capacity.  The challenge for our memories is not so much cramming stuff in there; it’s being able to retrieve information or ideas from our memories when we need them (i.e., when you’re sitting down in front of a test).  It turns out that the more times you practice retrieving something from your memory, the better you get at it.  Highlighting and re-reading do not require you to use your memory at all; practice testing does.  So if you want your memory to go to work for you in the exam, give it lots of practice when you study. Close your book and test yourself.  You can use flashcards; you can take practice quizzes online; or you can even just practice writing and re-writing the key ideas or information that you want to remember.


Spaced Study.  You probably know this one already, so I won’t belabor it.  But the evidence for it is irrefutable.  You will have a much greater long-term grasp of your learning if you space out your study over multiple sessions instead of cramming it all into one.  In one very simple experiment that demonstrated this, students who studied foreign language vocabulary for ten minutes three days in a row outperformed their peers who studied the same vocabulary words in a single thirty-minute session.  Your parents and all of your previous teachers were right: spacing out your study sessions over time beats cramming—by a lot.

 Making Connections.  When we learn something deeply, we relate it to other aspects of our lives and our existing knowledge. We have thick networks of connections between what we know already—or what we experience outside of school—and what we are learning.  As you are studying, try to make connections between what you are learning and other things you have learned or experienced.  Ask yourself connection-making questions: Have I ever encountered this before?  Have I learned anything similar in another course?  In what real-world contexts would this concept or skill operate?  Why is it significant?  This strategy will work best if you write these ideas down; fill out your notebook or your texts with new connections, rather than with highlighting or underlining

All three of these strategies require more work than highlighting or re-reading.  Learning isn’t always easy.  In fact, some learning researchers suggest that struggle in learning is beneficial.  When we grasp things easily and quickly, we also forget them easily and quickly. (This is one reason why we have learned in recent years not to worry so much about people's learning styles, which at one time were all the rage in education.  We all do have preferred ways of learning, but it's not always helpful for a visual learner to learn with visuals; it might be more effective for that person to struggle with other ways of mastering the material.)

The real problem with highlighting and re-reading arises when they represent your only study strategies.  They are easy and comfortable strategies for many students—which also means that they are largely ineffective.  They can, however, provide good starting points for your study, if you combine them with these other, more effective strategies.

If you really love it, then, you can hang onto your highlighter, and start your studying with it.  Just make sure that eventually you put it down, pick up your pen, and use study strategies that actually work.

Professor Lang is the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, located in TFAC, and the author of the 2016 book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. For more on the research behind these recommendations, check out RetrievalPractice.org and The Learning Scientists.