Three Tough Decisions Every Lecturer Has to Make

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As I make progress preparing my lecture class for the fall, there are three tough choices I still have to make:

1. Should I ban laptops in lecture?

Case for yes: The Internet is the world’s biggest distraction. All it takes is an instant message popping up or an email coming in and a student will get pulled away from the most interesting class. Even worse, if a student already knows what I happen to be talking about, it’s ever so tempting to just check Facebook or Twitter or her favorite news site for a hit of oxytocin. These students might not come back to the lecture until I’ve moved on and they’ve missed something good. Maybe worst of all is the fact that drifting away from the lecture is contagious and a few wayward students can snowball into a whole class checking out.

Case for no: Last I checked, we lived in a free society. Who am I to tell my students what they can and can’t do in class? If I can’t hold their attention, doesn’t that mean I need to make my lecture more interesting? At least a sizeable minority of students like to take their notes by typing or annotating the slides I distribute before class. Why should they suffer?

2. Should I make discussion sections mandatory?

Case for yes: I will be treating my discussion sections as labs this year and I expect students to learn a ton about data analysis by actually doing it during section. I don’t want my students missing out on this because they expect section to be boring.

Case for no: Students taking this class in previous years have said they want more training in actually analyzing data. If this is true they will want to come to section. If it’s not, they won’t come. The last thing I want is a bunch of students with bad attitudes messing it up for the ones that want to be there.

3. Should I cold-call students during lecture?

Case for yes: When students know they could be called on directly at any time, they stay more engaged. It’s a good way for me to assess how well the class is understanding what I’m teaching. It starts a dialog about the material.

Case for no: This is very tricky to do well. If you call on people who don’t know the answer, it can embarass them and use up precious class time. You have to set up an environment where it is OK to give a wrong answer. You have to ask questions that are not super easy or impossible. And you have to be very careful about who you call on–Students notice when you only call on certain people and can interpret this as discrimination even if you’re just avoiding people that look like they don’t want to be involved.

I recently had a student suggest that I could solve two problems at once by telling students they would be more likely to be called on if they were using their laptop.

What do you think?