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Tuning Out: Students Paying Less and Less Attention in Class

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I remember very clearly the first law class I took. I arrived just moments before the class started and sat in the back of the room which is generally my custom. I realized right away that every desk had power and an Internet jack which I found kind of cool at the moment.

The person just in front of me (who intended to be in the back of the class before I showed up) turned around and asked me as I sat down, "Hey, do you mind if I look at porn during class?"

This event was memorable not just because of the absurdity of the question but it was one of the few times in my life that I was left speechless. Any number of obnoxious comebacks would have done but I was taken aback at not only the boldness of asking such a question but the concept of looking at pornography during a class on jurisprudence.

Having Internet access in a classroom is simply a bad idea. I've been to enough classes now to see that none of them have actually made use of that for an educational reason. People will play solitaire, check their e-mail, or even play World of Warcraft during class, occasionally switching back to Word to type in a few notes.

However, the University of Illinois, like many other universities is blanketing the campus with wireless connectivity, including connectivity in the classroom. Some locations make sense, like the dorms or the airport. Others locations are a rather sad social commentary, such as the performing arts theater. I'm not much for operas, but if I did go I'd certainly want to be free from the digital leash of e-mail.

Wireless Internet access provides no enhancement to the classroom experience and detracts much from it.

It's easy to blame students who don't want to give due attention to their studies; however, many instructors here are so obviously disinterested in teaching that their lectures are largely a waste of time. I've encountered far more professors who spend lecture time reading out of the book or out of pre-printed lecture notes than professors who actually try to teach and provide solid material in class.

The provision of Internet access to the classroom provides yet another incentive for students to tune out during class. While it would be easy to say that those who don't perform will just fail out, the problem is with the current tendencies, if the bulk of students start under-performing because of web surfing, they'll just lower the standards.

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About John Doe

A political activist and security expert.
  • CallmeMaddy

    I’m a sophomore in high school. I disagree with you. I wish we could have computers in our classes. I cannot tell you how many times teachers hear: “My computer’s broken” or “I have it on a disc!” I would love if I could just email my assignments to myself and deal with it at school.

    You say people get distracted. Well, I know many people who do better when they are multi-tasking. I’m not one of them, but there are many.

    I am a pretty good student and I probably would pay attention regardless, because I’m an audio learner. Once in a while, I’d tune out and play on the computer, but my grade will reflect it.

    I do, however, do not think students should be looking at porn. So, here’s the compromise. In our IRC (Information Reseach Center AKA library) we have about 30 computers. The librarians have it, so they can see on their monitors what students are looking at. Colleges can do that.

    On a final note, I’ll say this. Students pay for their own college, so if they choose to be idiots, good for them. Hvae fun working at McDonalds.



    Well, John, this is a discouraging report. Anyone who has the duty to give a class and the time to prepare it should give the best, most infomative class possible. Then the Professor, having done his or her part, can grade students accordingly. What is happening to personal responsibility in education?

    Maddy, thanks for the insight in to your school. I am considering going into teaching as a second career, so I am always interested in the state of education today. Personally, I think schools should have some type of school based internet, students get a student log in and email account with limited use for schoolwork. You could email your homework to yourself and your instructor, but not use it like a personal email account. I agree that students should be accountable for their inattention in class, and I have heard that “visual learner/audio learner” idea before. Students may be oriented to learn one way, and surely some material is taught better using one media or method rather than another, by the time students are in high school, they need to learn to adapt their learning style to the teaching style.

    I wonder how many parents know what they are paying for when they subsidize their kids college funding?

  • As a teacher, I have to say that I can see both sides. If you teach for awhile and bust your ass preparing really good lesson material and the students are relatively indifferent, it’s hard to be motivated to continue at the same level. Teaching can be immensely rewarding or terribly disheartening depending on the students.

    I think a big part of the problem is that advanced education is wasted on the young. People who have finished 12 years of compulsory education aren’t in the mood for 4 more years. Most of them aren’t in it to learn. They’re in it to get a degree so they can get a good job.

    I’m not saying the relieves teacher’s of their responsibility when it comes to preparing but it could be that students won’t pay attention no matter what they do. If you get the same reaction when you prepare an elaborate multi-course gourmet meal as when you serve frozen pizza, you’re eventually just going to serve the pizza.

    I think the real question this very interesting article raises is whether or not schools should try to encourage students to pay attention by providing fewer opportunities for distraction. It’s my opinion that you shouldn’t remove the internet connections to save students from themselves because they’d just distract themselves with something else anyway. It’s preferable to at least give students who want to use the connection for educational purposes the opportunity to use it appropriately.

  • Mark Saleski

    what’s interesting about this phenomenon is that it extends, in a different sort of way, right into the professional workplace.

    people attend meetings with their laptops, the idea being that that’s where they do their notetaking. in this context, the computer can obviously be a useful resourse: documents can be refered to, and on an on.

    while that may be true, they also: surf the web, check emails, etc. of course, they also take cell phone calls (which makes me nuts).

    so people really do have to decide if the technology is their to help them, or screw things up.

  • larry

    the only fault i can see in maddys post is how many college students are paying their own money for college?

  • I paid my own way through college…

    For shame on me for being an adult! It’s of absolute importance that we raise generations of people with no sense of self-reliance so that they’ll be lifelong clients of the nanny-state.

  • vanessa

    i am going into my 2nd year in junior high and my avid teacher keeps telling us that we pay for our own collage tuition and it is an honor for just getting in so i think that looking at porn (i know wut that is) or even playing games while teachers are teaching is a waste of your money the teachers time and the collages space i also think that you can look at porn at home so why even bother going to class if thats all you are going to do

    vanessa b. rio vista middle school fresno california

  • Joe

    It’s interesting to see all the points raised in the above posts. A philosophy class I’m taking right now is dealing with similar issues. Since day 1 the Professor made it quite clear that part of him teaching is based on a mutual respect. By this he means he putting forth every effort to prepare and conduct an insightful lecture but also asking that we the students reciprocate with full attentiveness and participation. He contends that if we do not pay attention (use of cell phone, reading the paper, use of laptop beyond note taking) he will immediately end the class and walk off stage. Just recently he did just that. A student was using his laptop beyond note taking purposes and another was texting on their cell phone. In accordance with what he has made quite clear throughout the semester, he walked off stage and ended lecture 20 minutes in twice now. This has raised a number of issues since the cause for ending lecture has been attributed to a single student out of 400 total each time. Some feel he has the right and is courageous to do so in light of his values (it’s an Ethics and Value Theory philosophy course) Other feels that since each student is paying for this education, it should be up to them as to whether or not s/he should pay attention. Granted each student may not personally pay for it, the fact of the matter is that it’s optional to be a student at the university and some related party of the student is paying for it. Any thoughts?

  • fool your own teacher

    what do you think of yourself

  • Shani S.

    As a 16 year-old in 10th grade, I agree with john in this case. Whether or not they’ll find another way to be distracted, it gives them an oppurtunity to disrespect the teacher more so than when someone is doodling or messing with an eraser or texting even. I mean really, compare the two: texting vs. porn/WOW. Which is worse? I think the first instances stating ar far less demoralizing to the teacher as opposed to solitaire, WOW, e-mail, porn, etc.

    Another thing, I feel this gives the pupil a chance to feel better about his or herself while insulting the teacher. It’s like an unspoken slap to the face. Almost egging the teacher on to do something drastic.

    I remember I had an english teacher in 7th grade who would do various things if we weren’t paying attention. She would drop several large textbooks onto the table of someone putting their head down. Other times she would use her gavel to get our attention. Trust me, the attention span of 12-13 year-old’s is a lot shorter than a normal 18-23 year-old’s.

    I say kudos to Joe’s philosophy teacher. He will not lower his self-value for his job or money.

    Shani S. University High School LA, CA