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As a neurodivergent learner, I did not receive an accurate diagnosis until fifteen years after graduate school, yet my disabilities were never invisible to me. In high school, for example, my “D”s in geometry took just as much, if not more, work than “A”s in my literature classes. My teachers often told me that I was not working up to my potential and needed to try harder or, conversely, that I took life too seriously. But they did not understand, and I did not know how to explain, that the processes of working in geometry or literature felt often felt very different, and those differences were deeply related to attention.
Decades later, my struggles with attention seem relevant to fully remote teaching and learning. In an online space with infinite distractions, how do we draw in and hold onto the attention of our students, and how can we allow them to focus their attention to grow their writing and learning?
Since moving online beginning in the emergencies of March 2020 through the uncertainties of December 2021, every semester has brought its own insights and frustrations, and there is obviously not a single answer that fits every class in every semester.
This semester, however, students seemed to ask for more directions than in past online semesters, but the directions seemed to inadvertently stymie students’ writing, to bring students to a stopping point. Students did a good job of following the directions, but they generally did not seek to move beyond the minimum threshold, no matter how much encouragement I offered.
At times, students appeared to follow the directions as if the directions were formulas to solve proofs in geometry step by step. The hyper-focus was on attempting to follow the directions exactly as they were written, and the directions themselves became a distraction from the writing process. They could follow the directions specifically as written, but following the directions alone would not produce a sufficient amount of writing. Following the directions would not yield enough writing to meet the length requirements for the grades students were hoping to earn.
After much reflection this semester, I realize that the directions contain two unstated assumptions. The first assumption was that, encouraged by group and individual activities, students would write to process their thoughts about the text. Processing thoughts would involve building on class activities, reading the text closely, and trying to make sense of their own interpretations of the text.
The second assumption was that students would use the directions not as a formula, but as a recipe. A formula must be followed in the same fashion by everyone to achieve the same result. A recipe offers basic directions but invites the cook to switch up the ingredients as desired.
In other words, writing, for me, does not mean filling out a template, or finding one singular answer to a straight-forward question-based prompt. Yet without a template some students struggled with organization. Without the prompts, some students struggled to find their own motivations for writing. Even as students and I had grappled with these writing process issues before 2020, the constraints and the confusions of the pandemic brought increased distractions and even more difficulty finding flow.
One of the distractions of geometry was that my teachers assumed students would come to the course with general knowledge that could be applied to learning how to use formulas to solve proofs. The teachers did not expect to teach that general mathematical knowledge, but they expected all of us to adapt that knowledge to geometric proofs.
Because of my undiagnosed disabilities, I had fallen far behind in general mathematical knowledge and could no longer overcompensate for what I had not yet learned. That left me hyper-focused on the directions, with not enough room in my working memory to figure out why proofs matter. Without this understanding, I was constantly distracted by the directions, and because of the distractions I could not concentrate enough to find the deep flow of my thoughts. I could not take ownership of geometry.
In a global pandemic, fully remote teaching and learning collapses time and condenses space. Zoom is not a normal classroom, and cannot be retrofitted to fit traditional expectations. There is no formula because we cannot predict the results. Moreover, even if we had a formula, not everyone would be able to follow it.
But we can create a recipe, and we pay attention to adaptations and changes. In this way, I am beginning to see templates and prompts not as barriers, but as conduits to learning and as a means of learning to concentrate more fully on the purposes and processes of writing. In other words, in muting distractions perhaps we can begin to imagine the aspiration of reaching flow.
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