The shortest classes I teach are 90 minutes long, and anyone who has done any reading about learning knows that’s much too long for any person to be continually paying attention. I experience it myself when I go to conferences and find myself unable to listen the entire time during a 30-minute research presentation. In recognition of this, I never spend the entire time in class talking. I aim to talk for no more than 15 minutes, although to be fair I have to say that when I’m introducing a new topic that can stretch to 30 minutes, and then give them an activity to complete using the ideas I’ve just discussed. Before I talk about anything new, we then develop the solution to the activity together in class. Breaking up the material this way is helpful for everyone’s attention, including my own.
But despite my best efforts, I still occasionally have trouble getting students to pay attention in class. Midterm week and the spring quarter as a whole are particularly difficult times, but it occurs with regularity at other times too. If I had $1 for every time a student asked about something I directly discussed in class, I would be a significantly richer person. I try to handle it with humor, but I admit that I do get frustrated about it.
Still, there are times when students absolutely blow me away with their attention to what I have to say. Recently a student told me that he was going to work to start assignments early, like I’ve been pestering him to do for the past quarter and a half. Unlike a lot of students who say that, he actually did it. As might be expected, he’s had significantly better success with the assignments since he changed his approach. I told him I was proud of him, and jokingly asked him if he would give testimonials to try to convince his classmates to do the same.
My favorite example of students paying attention to what I have to say involves the accelerated Python class for (moderately) experienced programmers that I teach. Unlike the Python classes for novices, it’s taught in a regular classroom. Nevertheless, I treat it like I do the other Python classes, and break up the introduction of material with in-class programming activities. Students aren’t required to use computers, but I do tell them that bringing a laptop (if they have one) is helpful since writing code on a machine allows you to test what you’re doing. At the start of the quarter very few students bring laptops, no doubt because instructors in other fields discourage them from doing so. But by the end of the second week, my classroom always looks like the following:
The majority of students in the picture have their laptops with them. And they bring them to class every day. I never have to cajole them into it either since I make it abundantly clear that I think it’s useful by giving them in-class activities over and over.
The idea that you tell students what is important by the things that you do is also my theory as to why my class attendance is so high, even though attendance (other than for labs) isn’t required. I take attendance every day, so they conclude (correctly) that I value it. I need to remind myself of this when I’m frustrated about a student who clearly wasn’t paying attention to something I said in class. They do sometimes hear what I say, and the most I can do is be clear about what I value.