Pay Attention: Teacher as Distracted Student

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Recently while an audience member at a professional conference I found myself morphing into one of my students. I was supposed to be paying attention but in a moment of boredom or disinterest I had noticed a colleague on the other side of the auditorium with her phone on the desk in front of her. I couldn’t resist the urge to send her a text.

I’d like to say that I was ashamed to have resorted to the behavior of an indifferent student. More than that, however, I was struck by how easily distracted I am. Why couldn’t I pay attention when I knew the information being conveyed was important? Is there something in this experience that can inform my own teaching and help me prevent students from tuning me out in the same way I tuned out the conference speaker?

When I think about that presentation now I cannot recall any of the key components even though it was in my field and relevant to the work that I do as community college faculty. The sad truth is that the speaker did a poor job of communicating his message and my smart-phone was an easy distraction. The relevance for me as a history professor who often talks incessantly at the front of the classroom is profound: with every lecture I write or presentation I prepare, I need to continuously ask myself what do I want the students to know and, perhaps even more importantly, are my methods delivering that information to my audience?

As I’ve prepared for the start of the semester over the last few weeks I’ve come face to face with a reality: I need to do a better job conveying information to students in a way that is succinct, clear and meaningful. I’m not saying that my presentations need to be more flashy or incorporate more technology or “entertain” the students, but they could undoubtedly be better organized. I need to ensure that the students can see relevance in what I am lecturing about and how it connects to the larger themes of the course. Like most faculty, I imagine, I rarely evaluate my lectures and presentations immediately after they are delivered. I certainly notice bored and distracted students in the moment, but as I'm grumbling in the aftermath I seldom consider what I could be doing to better connect those students to the lecture itself.

The challenge, of course, is how to accomplish this task. What can we as teachers do (short of quizzing and testing) to gauge our students’ understanding of what we are presenting? My experience as a delinquent conference attendee has led me to think more critically about my own presentation style and what I may be doing to foster lethargy and boredom among my audience. So what’s going on in your classroom? Are you using a classroom response system (“clicker”)? Are you showing short film clips or using music to invigorate your lectures? Have you developed some instrument of self-reflection or evaluation? What is working and not working with your lectures?   

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.