"You're crazy to even try!" came the blistering comment from a colleague. I had just reported that I planned to give presentations to students about turning off their laptops and smartphones during class and paying attention to lectures.
A few months before that, I'd thought the same thing. When I began my research for Conquer CyberOverload (1) I didn't have an audience of college students in mind. I was thinking more of the business world, where cyberloafing (using your computer for recreation when you're supposed to be working) has become a big issue. Plus, I really felt the college audience would be too tough a crowd: How could I convince kids who'd grown up with virtually constant connection to their digital devices to moderate their activities?
But after observing the positive responses of a variety of business and professional audiences to my presentations, I became tempted to try the student audience. So I started this fall with incoming Freshmen, reasoning that students new to the college experience might at least give me a chance. I made essentially the same points, but adapted the advice to their situations (writing a paper rather than a memo; listening to a lecture rather than attending a meeting). As always, I was not judgmental. I started by admitting that they have it harder in some ways than I did:
"When I was in college, I could turn to the student newspaper when I got bored in lecture; today, you have Angelina Jolie, Jon Stewart, ESPN, and your friends beckoning to you with fascinating tidbits all the time."
In my talks, I report on research that has been done in the last few years about the futility of multitasking (see my previous posts, below). But what really seems to get them is the brain exercises I have them engage in, which demonstrate how much they lose while multitasking and how inept they are at handling information overload. You can't tell young people how something affects them. You have to show them.
I've now given my new lecture "Thriving on Campus and in Cyberspace" in four different college venues at varying class levels. In all four cases, the response has been almost uniformly positive. When asked on an evaluation whether they'd recommend the lecture to a friend, virtually all say yes. The hostility I expected hasn't materialized. And what is most encouraging is that, in an open-ended question asking what they thought about the lecture, many say things like "I had no idea how impossible it is for the brain to multitask," and a majority say either that they found the information useful or that they would try some of the suggested techniques.
So I'm now working on some follow-up research to determine how frequently students actually follow the advice and what impact they're seeing on their academic success.
Recent reports suggest that many professors are trying to enforce rules against texting or web surfing in class.(2) Good luck to them.
I'm glad I tried I tried another way. I don't think we can legislate attention. But maybe we can change attitudes.
(1) Cantor, J. (2009). Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress.
Mayk, V. (2010, November 29). Wilkes University professors examine use of text messaging in the college classroom.
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