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.

7 thoughts on “Engaging a Distracted Student

  1. I’ve tried to harness the technology when I can to my own purposes. When laptops are out, ask questions that can only be answered by Googleing. Also, i’ve had great success using Polleverywhere.com to create live text polls that show results in my PPT presentations. Students love it and become very engaged. I find ignoring the technology to be a bigger problem. I set expectations, but respect the fact they value the technology by trying to weave it into my lectures when possible.
    If you’re communicating with someone outside of our room, you have to leave the room.

  2. Angela, I would recommend that book. It’s a quick read, and it reminds me that no matter how carefully I select the readings, if students are bored in class, that other stuff doesn’t count for much. In places, the author seems to be working against teacher training — complaining that a lesson plan that uses trendy techniques that please education professors won’t always work in the classroom. But that’s mostly in the introduction… the actual description of teaching techniques is pretty creative. Again, maybe this will be old stuff to you, but I’ve enjoyed the results when I spend more time thinking about how I spend my class.

  3. As the semester winds down and talk about ipad distribution begins, this has also been a pressing issue on my mind. Part of me gets really upset when I see students not paying attention and wants to blame them, but most of me reflects inward and asks what needs to be done to engage students and to make them more responsible for their learning. But when it’s just a one or two students texting or Facebooking or what-have-you, I can’t help but wonder if this kind of behavior has always existed in classrooms and is just more visible because devices like cell phones or laptops or ipads make it so? We all have bad days when we don’t feel like paying attention, as you point out, and that does need to be respected. Regardless, I definitely think the transition to ipads and laptops will be overwhelming both for students and teachers as far as classroom management issues go, and I firmly believe in the importance of your assertion that “if they aren’t asked to use the tech meaningfully, they’ll be likely to permit themselves to become distracted by it.” As I plan my courses for the fall, this will definitely be a part of my mantra!

  4. Would you recommend that book to someone like me who is going to teach high school? I’m constantly trying to think of how I can be better in the classroom setting because I don’t want my students to get bored.
    I think the way you initially handled the situation was fine. Just a stare telling her you saw it would be enough for most. Also, you could utilize proximity if you were on your feet. If you started coming closer to her, your body language would show her that you saw her and were going to address it. It would make her uncomfortable (most likely) and she would have hopefully stopped. But, everyone is different. That’s just a little thing I’ve been taught.
    A few weeks ago I was observing a classroom and a similar situation occurred. A student was using her purse to shield her phone from the teacher while she was supposed to be doing schoolwork. I cleared my throat and stared straight at her, then her phone. Seeing that she had been foiled, she put her phone away.

  5. And I thought this was just the sort of thing that happened to me and my classes! They are most likely to do it when I’m lecturing or explaining. Least likely when doing something in groups, at least as near as I can tell.
    I tend to mimic the students who are texting in a way that bugs me. They tend to slouch, stick their legs out, and look beneath the surface of the desk, so I do that while standing in front of the room, kinda looking like the dude in the “keep on truckin'” poster, pretending to text while moving across the room. I guess this is somewhat a mocking “proximity control” strategy, so at least they can see I know what they’re doing.
    An odd bit of irony. Yesterday I had my most text-happy class post comments to wiffiti. You may have seen it mentioned. All the texters went brain dead, unable to think of anything to post that they were willing for the whole class to see.

  6. I’d say, as a student who still remembers that in first grade, Sister Cyrene took away my puppet until the end of the school day, that one time should have been enough.

  7. Always an annoying little situation, isn’t it? I want to, as you say, treat the students like adults, but they sometimes make it so darn hard.
    I’ve found that moving around the classroom — in and out of the desks, up and down the aisles — helps. The students don’t know when you’re coming their way, so they’re more reluctant to whip out the phone. Of course, that does little to assuage the ones who text blatantly atop their desks, tapping away as though they’re alone, in their room or in Starbucks. =)
    Good luck!

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