Instructors love to discuss the many ways we see our students use their phones or laptops in our classrooms: applying for jobs, selling clothes on Poshmark, looking up sports scores, rapidly writing a speech for their next course, and, of course, social media sites abound. In my courses, I try to model time management by beginning and ending class exactly on time, so I often see students who have arrived a few minutes early escaping through their screens. I wished my students would use pre-class time to talk to one another or review their materials, and I told them this. However, their screens still held more appeal. When I requested a course observation from a colleague, something became clear: to my students, I also appeared disengaged until my course began. My colleague noted that I casually greeted students as they walked in, but I spent most of my pre-class time checking my watch and reviewing my slides for the day. To my students, I was, like them, just staring at a screen.
I reconsidered how I spent my time before class, and the following Monday, I swapped my slide-reviewing for puzzle books. This elicited a series of questions from my students about what I was working on. I explained that I needed a screen break to get ready for class, and they all nodded in agreement. Some even closed their laptops. I continued puzzling throughout the semester and noticed the class was far chattier; they talked to one another more, and they talked to me more. When I asked them about it, a few mentioned they were afraid to speak to me while I was behind the screen because they thought I was doing “busy professor things.” I also noticed that many students followed my example and set screens aside before class. This led to quicker engagement when class officially started.
I amped up my pre-class practices the next semester while teaching a fiction course. My students told me (via a Canvas discussion board prior to the first meeting) that they chose this class in hopes of reviving a long-lost sense of joyful reading. So, I arrived on the first day (and every day after) with a novel. Not only did it give me a chance to read something fun, but my students quickly caught on, bringing their own plastic-bound library books, tattered paperbacks, and folded IDS newspapers to class. Sometimes, we spent a few minutes sharing what we were reading with the class. Collectively, we made reading a 2x/week habit.
If you are willing to get creative, there are limitless ways to give students options for pre-class time. Peter Newberry, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia, projects an “Astronomy Picture of the Day” and asks students two questions:
- What do you notice?
- What do you wonder?
This collective wondering, Newberry reports, gets students into “astronomy mode” and jumpstarts class discussions. You could move around the room, chatting with students intentionally, as an Assumption University instructor referenced in James Lang’s Small Teaching does. In her end-of-course evaluations, this instructor’s students emphasized her positive classroom atmosphere, and I would bet that they found themselves more willing to talk to one another after watching her begin the practice.
When selecting a pre-class activity, think about what your goals are for your students. Do you want them to engage with you? With the material? With each other? My puzzles demonstrated I was available for student conversations and that I found screens distracting; my reading showed students I was committed to the goals we set together. Content-focused activities, like collective wondering about a photo or other artifact, can engage students and build their confidence about disciplines they are unfamiliar with. Identifying a purpose early on can help you determine what pre-class activity is best for you and your students.
The next time you find yourself complaining about students and their screens, consider what other options you might offer. Taking time to teach and demonstrate positive academic habits will not only prepare them for class and establish your classroom as a collective learning space but will also serve them well beyond your course. Not sure how to do it? Brainstorm with a CITL consultant by emailing email@example.com.
A final note: Approach students (and their screens) with compassion. While they may just be scrolling to scroll, they are just as likely be selling clothes to afford rent, arranging childcare, or trying to catch up on work in the little time they have. While modeling positive academic habits is important, so is respecting our students’ time.
Lang, James M. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand, 2016. (This book focuses on small, achievable small adjustments you can make to your teaching that will have a big impact; the section referenced is in “Chapter 7: Motivating.”)
Newberry, Peter. “You don’t have to wait for the clock to strike to start teaching.” Science Edventures: reflections on teaching and learning. 23 August 2012.