Engaging a Distracted Student

Today in class, I caught the same student texting three times, within ten minutes.  I used nonverbal responses and slowly escalated, in order to keep my reaction from interrupting the flow of the class discussion.  Yes, we want to treat students like adults; yes, whatever was distracting her may really be serious; yes, she has paid her tuition and it’s her choice whether she chooses to make the most of it or waste it.

It’s my natural tendency, when I’m leading a class discussion, to call on a student and then move in closer in order to ask follow-up questions.  If that sends the signal to the rest of the class that they’re all temporarily off the hook, they may feel they can turn their attention to their gadgets without being noticed.  I’ve been making more of an effort to view the whole room while still engaging with students one-on-one.  To me, it feels strange to ask a student a question and then back up, but whenever I do that, the student naturally speaks louder, which means more people hear the student.  When I back up, I capture more faces in my field of view, so I can see who is shaking their heads or scowling or nodding (or texting).

Like most college professors, I’ve had little formal training in classroom management.  I’ve been reading Teach Like a Champion, which explores what makes the truly “great” teachers different from the merely “good” ones.  While the book is geared towards primary school teachers, reading it (or, more precisely, listening to it on my Kindle during my commute) has provided me with specific terms that define techniques, some of which are familiar to me because I’ve stumbled across them on my own, and some I would have never even noticed.

I’m glad to have the extra information — both the wider field of view during class time, and a broader understanding of classroom management techniques.  But it is rather late in the term to start making a big deal out of inattentive behavior the students may have been engaging in all semester.  (Has she always slipped her headphones back into her ears right after I’ve taken attendance?  Does he always disappear for 5 minutes whenever the class moves to small group work?)

A freshman writing class is typically the first time students encounter the combination of freedom and high expectations that characterize the upper-level seminars they’ll take much later in their careers.  The fact that I’ve recently started paying more attention to the whole class means I now have to make more choices about how to address distracting behavior that happens peripherally, that might otherwise have completely slipped under my radar — such as the student distracted by texting.

Seton Hill’s innovative technology plan — iPads for everyone and laptops for incoming freshmen — will put lots of technology in the hands of students. These students will expect to use it in the classroom, and if they aren’t asked to use the tech meaningfully, they’ll be likely to permit themselves to become
distracted by it.

So I’m taking a moment to record these thoughts now, so I can remind myself to be a little tougher about setting and enforcing standards of behavior
and attentiveness earlier in the course.

While I sometimes bring a laptop to meetings, I’ve made a pledge to myself that I will close the cover and pay full attention to the speakers, unless I’m
actively looking at a document related to the meeting. It’s not always easy to stay focused. (And it will be harder when faculty members have our iPads, too.) But I’m guilty of blogging or e-mailing during family time, or when I have a pressing need to grade, or sleep, or clean my office. So I tend to be gentle when I encounter students who are distracted by technology.  As long as my enforcement of high expectations (for attendance, engagement, focus) is universal and consistent, I’d like to think that, in the long run, students will appreciate it.

The first time I engaged the texting student today, I simply made eye contact with her, pointed into my open palm, and shook my head. That reaction had the virtue of being brief and pretty much invisible to everyone else, but in retrospect, I can see that was an incomplete reaction; I focused on what I didn’t want her to do, rather than reminding her what she should be doing, or — better yet — sparking some internal motivation for paying attention.  The second time, when I asked her whether she had any questions, and when she said no, I added a gesture for “put it down” — again, without interrupting the flow of the classroom discussion.

I was genuinely surprised to catch her a third time. This time I stopped talking, made a “put it face down far in front of you” gesture, and didn’t continue until she complied. (Should I have confiscated it? Had I already sent the message that texting wasn’t that big of a deal, so it is too late now to expect compliance?)

The first two interactions took a fraction of a second; the third, probably just two or three (though it would have been longer if she hadn’t complied).  Compared with everything else that happened today (a student presentation; a reference to the syllabus to confirm that the paper is in fact 8-10 pages, not 7-10 pages; a bit of meta-analysis when a sample sentence I composed on the spot was just too weird (“Because some of the students in this classroom are on fire…”); a promise that I will show everything I carry in my fanny pack on the last day of classes), the in-class texting was very minor.

Certainly, most of the class would not have noticed the first two times I responded to the distracted student. But the texting student may remember these disciplinary actions (minor as they were) far more than anything else that happened.