Cell Phones in Class: Boon or Bane?

Building SkillsOur colleague Carol Kirves shared a link to a post from NPR-affiliate WKMS titled “How to Get Students to Stop Using Their Cell Phones in Class.” Author Anya Kamenetz describes a strategy employed by Dr. Doug Duncan at the University of Colorado Boulder. Duncan and others have done research noting the frequency of cell phone use in class, as well as the detriment performance that accompanies the inability to put down the phone.

After a unanimous class vote, Duncan offered his students an extra class point for leaving their phones on Duncan’s desk during class. That’s right, he “pays” (bribes? positively reinforces?) his students for turning off their phones. Another professor at a different institution said that he found that asking students to forgo cell phone usage during class was too stressful, so he avoids that cruel-and-unusual tactic by scheduling frequent cell phone breaks, starting with 1 minute between breaks and increasing over a few weeks to 30 minutes. Seriously.size1_55463_175339-children-using-smartphone

Here’s how I deal with this. My A&P students are free to use their phones during class to take photos of models, microscopic slides, the class displays, and almost anything else that they find helpful. They may not text during class. Many of them are solo parenting and/or have deployed family members. They may leave their phones on silent mode on their desks and leave to answer them as they deem necessary. (This rarely happens…maybe once ever 4 or 5 classes.)

During assessments, any phone that must be on—never more than a couple—goes on my desk in silent mode. I have had to deliver a phone to a student during an exam exactly once in the last eight years, and, yes, it was important.

Cell phones are not going away. Learning how to manage them appropriately is a challenge for instructors and students alike. We’d love to hear your strategies. For now, I’m agreeing with our buddy at xkcd.com


Reeling in That Impulsive Urge

Brian picHurry, stress, and fatigue play into the temptation to impulsively declare, “I’m done with that task.” What started with enthusiasm, or maybe just teeth-gritting duty, has turned into the craving to say, “The job is done” when it’s not, well at least not to high standards. A little voice inside says, “This needs more attention, more looking over,” but that thought brings waves of “No!”

A decision might even seem firmed up, but the inner voice won’t let go. Restlessness and dissatisfaction keep stirring up useful agitation begging for reconsideration: “Don’t let your decision harden into a fixed state yet.” Decisiveness is a virtue but not if impulse has sneaked in and swarmed the better brain cells out of necessary grit to make sure all is right.impulse-ctrl-button

I fight this impulse regularly. It’s part of being human, but quality work is built on more than pleading human frailty. Much is gained by having to weigh up consequences and contingencies when the desire to do so is zero, or less than zero. It’s the ability (learned from failure) to think through the welter of opposing thoughts, all crying. “This is just too hard. It’s too much trouble. This will just have to do. I’m sick of working on this.”

You don’t want your nurses, doctors, generals, and financial consultants thinking like this, or the coaches of beloved sports teams, your children’s chaperones, or the contractors working on your house.

takeyourtimeIt is true that some individuals beat things to death. “Enough!” we cry. I read about an author who never would have published his book because he kept finding things to fix or change. A friend told him that he had long overdone the process, and it was time to get the book to press.

More often though, regret comes from under-doing a task, not overdoing it. College is a place where more overdoing is likely welcome, and where impulsiveness hopefully is driven into retreat.

Where’d They Go?

Building SkillsAt a recent professional development session focused on essential skills for the workplace, the Human Resources director from one of our large local manufacturing plants listed the top reasons for “separation from the company,” which is evidently business-speak for “losing your job.”  What would you guess? a)Drugs? b)Poor performance? c)Insubordination?

The correct answer is d) None of the above. The number one reason for separation from the company is “job abandonment,” which means “No show, no call for three days.” Why, I wondered, would anyone with a good job think it’s acceptable to just not come to work? Why wouldn’t you call to let your supervisor know that you aren’t coming? Why would you think that everyone else in your group would be willing and able to pick up your slack? Where do crazy ideas like that come from?you_re_fired

This week I thought about the session again. Some of my students—a tiny fraction to be sure—have simply stopped attending class. I’ve checked our database to see if they have dropped the class. Nope. Some of them are still doing assignments in our online platform, even as they miss quizzes, labs, and exams.

Quite a few advisees have dropped by the office this week to make academic plans or to review their progress toward graduation. A surprising number of obviously capable students have dismal or failing grades in their histories. “What happened there? How did you fail ‘College Experience?'”

6561055891_d33dee7930_z“Well, this thing happened. (Fill in illness, family emergency, job shift change, whatever.) So I never got around to dropping the class, and then I got this grade.”

Job abandonment. No show. No call. And so it begins.

How do we nip this noxious weed in the bud? I point out the consequences of failure to communicate to both advisees and to my own AWOL students when I can track them down. Knowing your bones and muscles is great, but knowing how to show up is a pretty important trick.

Losers make promises they often break. Winners make commitments they always keep.

—Denis Waitley

Everything Has a Sound

Brian picEvery subject taught in a classroom is musical. Yes, music is not just stringed instruments, or woodwinds, or percussion. Unless student textbooks are all blank pages, words abound—ones that possess sound, and even rhythm. Thankfully, the information age cannot change that; it might unduly dry out the words but not eliminate them. The notion that information alone is an academic ideal is certainly not a healthy one because even when reading scientific prose, a reader can enjoy the neat, clean, clear sound of good sentences. This is equally true in social science, math, and history. No discipline is without its unique sounds, for even mathematical and scientific notations that use formulas have arrangement and design. wwmathms2

Occasionally when watching science or nature shows on television, it is obvious that the presenter’s love for the subject matter avoids overly technical language that would drive away viewers, but an element of style still enhances the words chosen in order to convey the beauty and awe of the subject. I recently watched an episode on elephants, and the biologists infused their narrative with efforts to bring the facts alive. Many a student has said of an instructor that a subject “came alive.” It’s this that makes knowledge worth the effort to gain it.

simile_elephantGranted, if a student is dead and chooses to remain dead, thunder and lightning will not help; and music might play on while an audience sleeps through it. Most listeners, however, can gain an appreciation for any subject’s type of words—not only their dictionary meaning, but also their arrangement, clarity, and precision. The point is not only the facts of the subject matter, but also hearing the music of the words used to convey it, regardless of the discipline. If a text avoids pretense and affectation, the language, no matter how simple or complex, will have a sound to it. It’s the sound of someone loving something with words.

Ending on an Up Note: Perfectly Imperfect

For all of you who are making your lists and checking them twice, hoping to create that elusive Rockwellian Thanksgiving for your loved ones, here is a replay of last year’s reassuring ad from Publix:


Enjoy your weekend, and all of your “last trips” to the grocery. (How many of those will you make?) See you at the Turkey Trot!


Color Me Happy

ReadingthuRsday-R2The recent explosion of coloring options for adults does not surprise me one bit. Coloring books for adults, sometimes pricey coloring options, seem an overnight sensation. However, many of us have known for a long time, coloring is not just for children. But saying that, I am amazed at the variety of options I see in stores and on websites. In a recent trip I made to Barnes and Noble, as well as a trip to Walmart, I saw adult coloring books with religious and spiritual pages to color, coloring books with a variety of nature options, including one just on birds and one just featuring flowers, and coloring books with a host of other themes. coloringbooks1

I think I know some reasons why coloring books are enjoyable for some adults. We can remember coloring as children, moving a crayon around on the pages changing dull backgrounds to bright colorful one. Beyond recreation, many of us colored worksheets dutifully in schools and during our religious instruction as we tried to learn concepts. As parents, some of us sat with our children and held conversations about what would be a good color to use for a variety of objects. To me, coloring is entrenched in childhood memories, my own and my daughter’s. The honest truth is, I just like to color, and I think there are other folks like me.

Those in the coloring “industry” are using their marketing to entice us back to a less stressful time. Many adult coloring books advertise their “calming” influence. As a matter of fact, it is not unusual for college counselors to encourage stressed out students to go to the web and get a few intricate pages to color as a stress reliever. I am not naïve enough to think coloring can take care of problems or make stress go away, but I do think a few minutes just concentrating on something that is not graded and critiqued must feel good to a college student.

crayons swirlI admit I have colored in times of stress. Twenty two years ago while cleaning out my sister Alison’s house after she had passed away, I came across a stash of coloring books. My sister had health problems, and she was often at home trying to fill her time. Her coloring books were of the Dollar Store variety, but each page she colored was very pretty. I spent some time looking through the pages. I remembered the last day she and I sat down side by side and spent some time coloring. I soon found myself getting out that box of 64 crayons and beginning to color. Coloring that day was calming, joyful, and fun even though it was shadowed by sadness. I found some peace in the stillness of a room moving a crayon around on paper.

So when I see all the adult options to color, I smile. I can see some folks laughing at the simplicity of using coloring to cope or to have fun. However, I think those of us who remember a happier time, and maybe even a calmer time, may seek comfort and pick up a crayon.

KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid

anneOh, the memories!

Yes, I know! Kiss was a rock band that began their road to fame in the mid to late 70s. They were renowned for their face paint and stage outfits. Their performances touted elaborate displays of fire breathing, blood spitting, smoking guitars, shooting rockets, levitating drums and pyrotechnics. WOW! Who doesn’t remember those shows? kiss

Now that I am finished with “memory lane,” it’s time to focus on another KISS that focuses on teaching. “Keep It Simple Stupid” (KISS) is often seen in print. What does it actually mean, and how can one use it in the educational arena?

I reminisce by going back to a simpler life I had growing up on a farm in rural Kentucky. “Simple” then did not equate to easy, but it did mean that I found pleasure in everyday things. (Notice that one of our premises for learning is also “pleasure”? How clever of us!) The pleasure in learning team is completely sold on the idea that pleasurable classroom practices are essential for learning. “Simple” in the classroom does not mean easy, but it does require that we make that environment fun or pleasurable.

woman-computer-drawing1I have been working for about an hour-and-a-half this morning to gather statistics and information for my psychology class to help drive home a point about caregiving, with a special emphasis on the father’s role in this daunting task. Okay, so I have all of this wonderful information. Will it serve the purpose I had in mind, or will only serve as a vessel for confusion?

Hmm, I may have to reconsider this. Am I really making this simple, or am I causing a derailment of the concept in general? I am by nature an “informavor.” I will spend hours sifting through information sites to help me understand a certain concept. “Google” is my middle name. How do I feel after this marathon search? Well, to be perfectly honest, I sometimes think, “Why did I do all of this? I know very little more now that when I started. All I do know is that my head is now spinning!”

Does your idea of teaching or learning revolve around making sure that students are bombarded with every morsel of information you can provide? Would it be a better learning environment if you were to specify the main facts in the subject and use simple examples to drive those points home?Einstein-simple-quote I ask this because one of my students last week referred to my stories. From some of my earlier posts, you know that I have a reputation for telling stories. The student said that no matter how many times I chase down a rabbit hole in my lecture, the examples always make the information clear.
Maybe we need to look for those obvious rabbit holes. Happy hunting!