Category Archives: Students’ Thinking

Multitasking, revisited

In my December 2 post I wondered about the appropriate role of mobile devices in the classroom. Since writing that column, I’ve discovered four relevant references that may influence one’s thinking on the issue.

1. PBS Frontline, “Digital Nation” (February 2, 2010, Season 28, Episode 3, What is the effect of media multitasking on society, education, brain development, and the economy? Interviews with researchers reveal what we now know about how badly the human brain multitasks and how some multitasking is impairing our ability to think deeply, even after the computer is turned off. In light of this research, the documentary challenges conventional wisdom about the role of technology in the classroom, yet perhaps most intriguing is the coverage of a Stanford study (see #2).

2. Ophir, Nass and Wagner, “Cognitive Control of Media Multitaskers” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009, vol. 106, no. 37). This study shows that students who think they are highly effective multitaskers are actually quite the opposite, or as Stanford’s Clifford Nass said in a BBC interview: “The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking.” See additional coverage in Wired Magazine and The Associated Press.

3. Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus Books, 2008). Jackson is another who argues that despite the cultural acceptance of multitasking, such practices are undermining our own attention skills; she cites more scientific studies that suggest that we have become so distracted by multitasking that we are losing the ability to think deeply about problems. In a video interview posted on her website (, she asks,

What are the repercussions for a democracy when citizens are surrounded by information and are less and less capable of creating knowledge or learning from that information?

Jackson says that the average knowledge-based worker in the US now switches tasks every three minutes, and about half of these are interrupting. If you are wondering about the financial toll of all this multitasking and disruption, you may be interested in this…


Posted in Instructional Technology, Students' Thinking, Uncategorized, Using Technology | 3 Comments

Understanding What You Don’t Understand

When students are having trouble, I often suggest that they come to work with me one-on-one so that we can figure out where they are going wrong and fix it. We go through an example of a basic and core problem, such as a simple supply and demand problem in economics. I ask them to explain things to me step-by-step so that I can see at what point the difficulty or mistake occurs. When we get to a point where they don’t know how to answer a question or where they have a misunderstanding, I jump in and explain. Then we do another example—or several more—so that they have a chance to do it themselves. Students usually find where their misunderstanding, or missing understanding, is.

Some students feel upset at being “put on the spot,” and some just avoid coming in to do this. I know that it is important that students don’t think that they are innately stupid and can’t learn. And I worry that highlighting their lack of understanding can undermine students’ confidence. But this method of finding out what students don’t know is generally very effective. Afterwards, they frequently enjoy a major leap in performance and understanding.

One student response, however, undermines the process and raises a red flag: “I understood that” right after saying something that showed not understanding. If you don’t realize that you don’t understand something then you can’t fix it. In my experience, such a response indicates a student who is unlikely to learn and improve either from our interaction or in other settings. Over the years, I have come to repeat things like: “Knowing what you don’t know is the key to learning”; “In economics (research methods, etc.) many problems are hard, and I often don’t understand them at first. It takes work. You need to be comfortable with not understanding things. Not understanding doesn’t mean anything is wrong, just that you need to work at it.”

But these are things that I say primarily in my office with individual students and only rarely to the class as a whole. Even when I speak to the class as a whole, I don’t really offer concrete methods for helping a student who does not recognize what they don’t understand to gain that recognition. I would like to have a more systematic way to help in this process.

Therefore, I read with interest an account of a CUNY project on self-regulated learning, described recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education here . The article describes how in a basic math course at City Tech, “when students make errors, they need to be coached to reflect on exactly where they went wrong…students are required to rework at least two of their incorrect quiz problems…[and] write a sentence or two about the correct strategy.”

What do other instructors think? How do you respond to students who don’t recognize when they don’t know or understand something?

Posted in Analytical Skills, Students' Skills and Abilities, Students' Thinking | 3 Comments

Back to Basics: Resisting the Allure of Web Technology in the Classroom


Cartoon from Paul Silli's blog post "Why Should School Districts Invest in Technology."

James Hoff, a Fellow at the Schwartz Communication Institute, just posted to the Institute’s blog a provocative argument against teaching with technology entitled “Back to Basics: Resisting the Allure of Web Technology in the Classroom.” Bellow is a snippet.

As a profession we seem to have thoughtlessly embraced the idea of technology precisely because we see it as a way of making learning easier and more accessible for more of our students. Obviously—the logic goes—our students are comfortable using the Internet and social networking tools, so why not allow them to use those skills to learn? This kind of thinking is common among instructors who embrace popular culture because they think it will help their students “relate” to the course material. These are the same teachers who spend class time screening Hollywood versions of Shakespeare because students are supposedly incapable of understanding Elizabethan English or who teach rap lyrics or song lyrics as poetry, because it’s easier for students to get the difference between a tenor and a vehicle when it’s Tupac or Bob Dylan speaking than when it’s Dylan Thomas or Langston Hughes. But our calling as educators extends beyond merely providing our students with opportunities to learn material. As educators we are also responsible for providing our students with experiences which they would not otherwise have access to, such as the experiences that result from finding solutions to difficult problems, engaged and thoughtful conversation, and collegial argument. But even more than this, it is important that we offer our students alternatives to the kinds of experiences provided by the technology of mass media. If we are going to insist on teaching them how to get by in the corporate world they’ve been given, we need to at least teach them that other worlds are still possible.

You can read the entire post and comment on it here.

Posted in Instructional Technology, Student Participation, Students' Thinking, Using Technology | 1 Comment

The Sound of Silence

Last night my executive MBA class discussed the case study “Deaconess-Glover Hospital” about a Massachusetts healthcare system that made significant improvements using the Toyota Production System. But before this column digresses into a “how do we improve healthcare?” debate, I’d like to share seven sentences Dr. Steven J. Spear wrote in the teaching note that accompanies the case.

Like most case study teaching notes, there is a recommended teaching plan. Immediately after suggesting that instructors ask, “Given what you know from the case, what would you recommend…?” Spear says, “Wait! Give students a chance to offer responses. Instructor silence is a powerful tool!”

If you read my 26-Nov-2008 post “Understanding ‘The Pause’,” hopefully Spear’s remark puts a smile on your face.

Spear offers other advice uncommon in most teaching notes. For example, he later suggests, “A key objective is to teach them [the students], through experience, to be specific both in terms of what they have observed and also in terms of what they would recommend. Therefore it is the responsibility of the instructor to challenge students.” And a little later in the lesson plan he advises, “Don’t let students off the hook. Whatever their response, ask…”

I appreciate these comments because case studies are hard work. They require significant student reading and digesting time as well as prep time on the part of the professor. However, when they work well, even exhausted executives have lively discussions at 8 pm at night. A little silence and challenge do go a long way.

(For those interested in learning more about the art of case teaching, please allow me to plug Baruch’s fall 2009 workshops.)

Posted in Classroom Management, Student Participation, Students' Thinking | 2 Comments

Note Taking Tips

Lifehacker recently posted this handy survey of five ways to take notes, something that may be worth sharing with your students.

Posted in Students' Skills and Abilities, Students' Thinking | 2 Comments

The Devil is in the Details

Several decades ago, when my dissertation advisor told me to “spice up” my writing, I realized that the better my prose became, the more I moved away from the facts–what I saw as “the truth.” Whereas I knew for a fact that “in March 1347, the papal treasury paid five silver pounds for fur hats for the pope’s eight singers*,” I didn’t really know if this was a “benevolent gesture by the supreme Pontiff.” But since I needed to please three readers, something that was always in the back of my mind, I suppose it ultimately didn’t hurt to insert gratuitous phrases periodically into what otherwise amounted to a 500-page spreadsheet.

As I’ve moved along in my teaching, I ask myself, “What is it that these students should know? What do they care about? What can bring them closer to the music and to the historical period?” At this point, I can honestly say that some of the information I now convey to my students is . . . uh . . . less than factual. At best, I suppose, it can pass as historical speculation. I’ve moved far away from factual detail in my lectures to a gray area of broad generalization and rhapsodic rambling.

Is it important that Mozart wrote a certain number of operas, or is it better that students know that he and his Italian librettist (Lorenzo da Ponte) were Masonic proto-revolutionaries? Should we call Mozart a “lofty genius” or rather think of him more as a musical Rainman with a touch of dyslexia perhaps and a smidgen of ADHD, as a contemporary scientific account alludes? When covering the 19th century, I want my students to think of Robert Schumann struggling with bi-polar disorder (and/or was it with his symptoms of late-stage syphilis?). I offer the class Schubert’s hypothetical pedophilia as explanation of a 17-year-old’s sensitive setting of “Erlking.”

There is certainly some evidence for these notions, but what do we really know? We really know dates for events and numbers of compositions, however, this is not the substance of a lecture; these facts are not worthy of study at anything but the graduate level. This is not history. All the trashy little tidbits that I spew paint a broader picture of Enlightenment and Romantic ideals. I want my students to identify with these historical figures as real people perhaps with lives similar to their own. Or so what if I have to sketch out characters as olde timey pop stars whose every move would today be covered by ET (Entertainment Tonight)? So, over time, I’ve moved away from a fastidious accuracy that marked my youthful scholarship. The broad sweep, the hyperbolic–that’s what works for me in the classroom. The factual details have become for me the dust of history.

*I just made this up, btw. This is becoming very easy to do.
Posted in Learning Goals and Objectives, Students' Thinking, Teaching Large Classes, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Teachin’ Thinkin’

Many years ago, I engaged in a short dialogue with a former colleague who had told me that he was hired to “teach music.” I differed with him and insisted that we were hired to teach thinking, writing, study skills, and many other things that were ultimately applicable to all of life’s situations. I told him that music was merely our vehicle. I think it’s important for us professors to tackle problems of innumeracy and illogic wherever we can. Over the decades I’ve tried to get students to engage in thought sometimes to the detriment of the day’s musical-historical topic. Here are some examples.

1) To negate their tendency to use facile opposites (i.e., “Schubert is the complete opposite of Bach”) I ask the class, “What is the opposite of ‘yes’? . . . ‘up’? . . . ‘black’? . . . ‘salt’? . . . ‘cat’? . . . ‘ketchup’?” They begin to laugh and see absurdity in opposite-of thinking.

2) To deter them from using negative terms to describe music (i.e., “The piece does not have a singer” or “It is not a fugue.”) I tell them that while such statements might be true, the piece neither has nor is an electric guitar, a screwdriver, a fuzzy overgrowth, or a bad aftertaste. It’s best to describe what something is (contains) rather than by the potential infinity-minus-one of what it is not (does not contain).

3) To correct freshmen who think they will all get an A in the class with HS-effort I tell them, “U. S. News & World Report states that 63% of you freshman graduated in top quarter of your HS classes. My question is this: What percentage of you will finish in the top quarter of this music class?” There are always too many who answer “63%.” That’s a real eye-opener for incoming freshmen.

4) To give them a sense of connection to history I ask, “How many people here had ancestors who were alive during the 15th century?” About 10% of the hands go up. They often look at each other and mouth, “How the heck am I supposed to know?” I’m sorry to say that this one boggles many minds.

5) To get them to think about the mathematics of the division of the octave I ask them “How many pitches can there be in an octave, if the two pitches can be hypothetically represented by 100 Hz (a string length of 4 meters) and 200 Hz (2 meters)? How many if they can be represented by 200 Hz (2 meters) and 400 Hz (1 meter)?” When they get this wrong, I ask them how many numbers there are between x and 2x.

I’m wondering if any of you have general thought questions you use in your classes/discipline that you’d like to share.

Posted in Students' Thinking | 1 Comment