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Can College Students Resist The Lure Of Facebook, Twitter During Class?

Are any of these students texting?
Lisa Klumpp
Are any of these students texting?

Dear college students across the U.S.,

Like millions of my colleagues who teach at universities and colleges, I'm working hard this week to put an updated zing into the syllabus for each of my fall classes. Describing the course content and readings for Biological Anthropology and Primate Behavior is the fun, mind-engaging part.

By contrast, the "Policies" (do's and don'ts) section of each syllabus is less than fascinating to compose, but it contains one particularly key passage: Do resist the urge to send email, texts or tweets, check Facebook, read the news, or otherwise engage online via your computer or phone during class!

Because I imagine many professors across the land are constructing similar statements right about now, I'd like to issue you a College Challenge '12-'13: Make the lecture hall, science laboratory and seminar room a haven of focused concentration, free of online distractions. Surprise the critics who say college kids today can't — or don't choose to — concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time.

There's quantitative support for concern about concentration in the classroom. One study showed that, on average, students at the University of Pittsburgh in Bradford said they read 2.6 texts per class and send 2.4, and that their learning probably suffers for it.

A larger survey of more than a thousand students at the University of New Hampshire revealed that only 20 percent of them said they send no texts during a "typical" class. A stunning 15 percent send more than 11 texts in a single class period.

When, as a teaching mentor to a younger colleague, I sat in the back of two classrooms last year, I saw with my own eyes what the teacher up front could not: More than a few of your peers used their open laptops in ways quite apart from taking thorough notes. A writer at the Harvard Crimson reflects upon this same startling "Facebook in class" phenomenon at Harvard University, suggesting that less-than-stellar teaching may be party to blame.

Of course, after 24 years at the College of William and Mary, I know firsthand that a great number of you show up to class with laser-beam focus, and engage with your professors and peers in ways that bring benefits to us all-- even when you may find the material (or its delivery) less than riveting.

And lots of us faculty embrace online interactions. I wrote here last week about the joys of learning science via Twitter. Some of us may bring online teaching tools into our classrooms by, say, assigning a series of high-quality blog posts, showing a YouTube video or "Ted" talk, or arranging Skype discussions with professionals in our field.

But as Jason Lanier says in his book You Are Not A Gadget, "The most important thing about a technology is how it changes people." As a culture, we have to fight the seductive appeal of constant connection via our technology, which fragments our attention and interrupts the joy of full immersion in thinking, problem-solving, and questioning.

So, students, help us college teachers out as we work hard to impart the material we love and as we learn along with you. During our 50- or 75-minute classes, or our three-hour seminars or labs, shut down the electronics unless invited to do otherwise. The collective classroom dynamic will change for the better!


Barbara J. King (after class, join me on Twitter: @bjkingape)

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.
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