Do your students pay attention when you speak?

I teach in a classroom where students sit at desks with dual monitors in front of them. The students face my desk at the front of the room, I cannot see their screens. Due to the height of the screens (set by our Accommodations staff) I can hardly see their faces when I am sitting down.

When I lecture, I use a projector to show one of my screens for programming examples, good links, videos, etc. I also project pages of the textbook and other printed materials. But I am not used to students sitting at desks with computers: when I was in school we didn't have them, and in college we had standard lecture rooms. There was nowhere else to look, really, except at the only moving thing in the room - the Instructor.

Often, when I talk, the students are looking down... At their notes? The book? Something else? I can hardly see them behind their screens anyway (must they be raised up all the way?) I try to present vital points on at least 3 different days, but sometimes nobody "gets it", or only one or two do. Is it my teaching, or their attention? Do you experience this also and if so, what do you do? I have trouble giving firm directives due to my personality tendencies.

• Someone I know would say, "Love them enough to give firm directions." Gerald M. Weinberg says a similar thing about overcoming lack of self-esteem to directly address the actual problem in a situation. – user737 Jun 17 '17 at 15:55
• If this is a lab, do you have the ability to control their screens? If you present with powerpoints, you could project them onto the students' screens as you go, and when you want them to watch you, put up a "Look at instructor" slide – Ben I. Jun 17 '17 at 16:04
• @BenI. I could actually control their screens. I could see their screens using software also. But I stubbornly keep thinking: A) don't they want to learn, and B) am I not interesting enough to watch so that they can learn better, faster, easier? Aren't they "constructive-selfish" enough to do that? – user737 Jun 17 '17 at 16:12

As I am not a teacher, I can't tell you any experiences, so I'll just give my thoughs on how I would deal with such a situation. I know this is not exactly what you asked for, but I hope it can be at least partially helpful.

I think the situation consists of two perspectives: First of all, how you feel; secondly, how you think the students should feel and behave.

To the first point I have to admit I don't have a lot of experience: I imagine it can frustrating to teach when nobody seems to listen. This will probably be dependent on the self-confidence of the teacher and can be a greater or a smaller problem. This is something you can say to your students in a message like "I'm feeling frustrated if you don't listen to me, could you please do so?". Formulating a message like this often helps the addressed persons to understand your feelings and is more likely to work than an unpersonal message, it would additionally not have to be a "firm" message if you don't like to give one (you'd just talk like you'd normally talk about your feelings).

To the second point I would say you don't have a lot to do. You try to let them profit from your knowledge and the effort you have made to work into your curriculum, so your lessons are an opportunity for them. If they decide not to follow them, it's only their problem. You could point out once or twice that this could have consequences for them you can't regulate (such as not passing final exams or not having the knowledge they apparently wanted to gain). After that, you don't have to say anything more to this.

From a student perspective I could say to you that students find many ways to get distracted in front of the computer, even if they value you and your lessons. This happened to me at least once as a student in a class where I really liked the teacher but somehow thought it would be "cool" to do something else - the teacher then noticed it and asked my to either focus on him or turn of the monitors. I followed his request because I thought over it again and noticed I was really interested in the topic.

Ask them to switch their screens off.

They don't like it if you do it too often or for too long but it's surprisingly effective, saves you having to repeat yourself unnecessarily and forces you to try to make your instructions clear and concise. If you can't see their screens you can always tell by the glare from their screens on their faces who hasn't followed instructions.

• Sometimes the students glare at their screens, ha ha. My co-instructor suggested that I tell the students to turn screens off when I lecture. We have software which would let us disconnect internet access or even lock their computers when we want to. Perhaps having a genie on one's desk is just too great a temptation, but I didn't grow up with that, so I am unsure how to handle it. I expect them to want to learn. – user737 Jun 18 '17 at 13:51

As thesecretmaster once intoned, "Just from my experience as a student, computer out == doing whatever you want."

Kids won't learn from you if they won't give you their attention. And a quick glance into a restaurant, with faces aglow from phone screens, is enough to demonstrate that prioritizing attention to a person instead of a screen is hard for anybody, even if they like you and are interested in what you have to say. How much much harder must it be for a kid who is only half-interested in the first place? So the first thing to do is to heed the advice of pddring: get those screens turned off!

If you really want to pull in their focus, here are a few additional techniques you might use:

1. Get physical. Even though high school kids resist physical activities in class, any time you can get them using their bodies, they will be engaged. Have them imitate the shape of a graph with their hands. Tell them to stand up and figure out with a partner how to mime recursion, or whatever concept you've just discussed. Use manipulables whenever you can. Honestly, even doing an elementary-school style "stand up and shake it out" can bring your kids back to you.

2. Thumbs-up: comprehension self-ratings. After almost every concept I teach, I have my kids show me thumbs. Thumbs-up means that they think they get it. Thumbs-down means they're lost, and thumbs to the side means they're feeling a little fuzzy. This immediate feedback allows me to target the kids who know they need help right away.

3. Modified pop-quizzes. One technique I used regularly in my old job was semi-announced pop-quizzes. If attention was floundering, I would announce that a pop quiz was possible in the next 10 minutes. I only actually ran a pop quiz about 20-25% of the time. Most of the time, the kids clicked in, and I didn't need to. The quizzes themselves didn't count for a lot, but the mere threat of them provided a very easy tool to gain total, focused attention at moments when I really needed it.

4. Pair, explain, ask. This is a modification of the traditional pair and share, and is useful for concepts that you are already pretty sure that your kids don't entirely get. (I will use this in place of thumbs-up when I want to get a difficult point across). Ask kids to explain the concept we just learned to a neighbor, and announce the number of seconds available for the activity (why seconds? See footnote here). You'll get an immediate flurry of activity, and if you listen, you'll hear some very productive discussion going on. As soon as they're done, ask if any groups still have questions.

5. Keep it silly. Even the driest topics are made more palatable with a dose of the silly. Mary Poppins got this right. "Just a spoonful of sugar..." It doesn't have to be world-class humor. It just needs to be off-kilter enough to keep the kids guessing a little about where you will go next.

I hope that something above will give you (and your students!) a much-needed lifeline. Attention is something we must constantly monitor as teachers, and it never gets easy. But when it gets super frustrating, and you want to strangle your students for being off in outer space somewhere, try to remember that you actually like these kids, and it'll all be worth it in the end. :)

• This is a great answer! +1 for not just providing ways to force attention, but to encourage attention. – heather Jun 19 '17 at 23:28
• Not sure about Point 1, even back then I would have felt like a 5 years old child in front of my classmates, not nice, not engaging. That may work with a teacher which is really good at getting along with their students though. – Walfrat Jun 26 '17 at 11:09
• @Walfrat It does require a classroom with good levels of trust between the teacher and the students. But without a good atmosphere in the room, so many things break down that not being able to get them moving becomes a negligible concern. You need a level of mutual trust with your students, or almost nothing good will be coming out of that classroom. – Ben I. Jun 26 '17 at 12:42

From what I have seen, students who sit with a laptop (and this should be the same for your case, because the point is about having their own computer, and you can't see the screen) very rarely listen to the instructor.

They might be working on their own projects, but some might be playing games, browsing websites and doing other non-related things. This hinders their progress, because they have no idea what the instructor teaches, having listened to only 5-10 minutes in the best case.

Some teachers forbid the usage of laptops in the class (yes, even in CS classes; unless it's a lab lesson). This is less practical for you, but if the computers where put in front of the students by the institution, I'm sure you can ask the relevant department to make it so that the computer at the teacher's desk can "take over" all of the screens. This allows you to make sure that the students either look at the screen, or at you.

The students wont like this, to say the least. But students who come to class have to understand that it's not time to play or browse websites. Again, it's up to you to decide how much time you force their screens to show what the instructor's computer shows. During labs, it's highly advised not to "take over" their screens. For the sake of those who do want to learn and be there, letting them have free reign in labs is a good aid to their learning. (Besides, those students might appreciate it very much if they can see what you are showing with the projector, but on their screen, so they don't have to crane their necks to see over their screens)

It comes down to the students understanding that just because computer screens are there, one doesn't have to use them.

• Showing my projected image on their screens is an idea, but I still want them to look at me because I am pointing at the main screen (which is actually a huge whiteboard), writing on it and putting notes next to the image, etc. They are not able to bring their own computers in, and it is a work training program, so we run it like a workplace. If they can't show workplace-appropriate behavior, they won't be able to keep a job. – user737 Jun 18 '17 at 13:45
• @nocomprende if my other suggestion is applicable (have the ability to "take over" their screens), then that still solves your problem. You can put a boring screen saver on your screen... – ItamarG3 Jun 20 '17 at 10:16

I always insisted that they look at me. I explained that the only way I could tell they were listening was if they were making eye contact with me.

That and making sure screens are turned off.

When possible, move around the classroom and address students from different areas but make sure you are stationary when giving direct instructions. I find that having a wireless mouse really helps as I can perform basic commands from anywhere in the room.

Also, ask for screens off followed by "I'm still waiting for 3 screens to be turned off". This will usually kick-start students into turning their (or a neighbor's) screen off.

Before our teacher started talking, he'd tell us to turn to the front (for the people on the sides, see diagram below) or tell us to shut off our computers for the moment.

Our classroom was set up similarly, and as our teacher was talking up front, he'd walk up and down the middle aisle a little bit, and if he saw someone not focused because of their computer, he'd go over, still talking, and use a quick keyboard shortcut to log them out. Of course, it wasn't a large class, so it wasn't as difficult to keep track of everyone.

The classroom looked something like this (- is a computer, | and _ are walls; the teacher's desk was at the back, while whiteboards/etc were up at the front):

_________________________
|                       |
|------          -------|
|-                     -|
|-                     -|
|------          -------|
|-                     -|
|-                     -|
|                       |
|_______________________|


Everyone would be kind of chuckling that he did that. It was a way of doing something without out loud calling them out, interrupting the class, or anything like that. The kids he did it to were obviously mildly embarrassed, but not a ton, and they paid attention. So - I think it worked pretty well.

• Teacher's desk was at the back, so had to walk past students to get to the front anyway. I understand now. I am thinking about the dynamics of teaching adults though, some of whom are older than I am. I will ponder this. – user737 Jun 18 '17 at 17:08
• @nocomprende I think if you make the policy clear, no one will be offended. – heather Jun 18 '17 at 17:10
• Yes. It probably has more to do with my personality though. As Gerald M. Weinberg would say, "I am in serious danger of growing." I need to hit The Self-Esteem Shop (it actually exists). – user737 Jun 18 '17 at 17:13

I also have trouble giving "firm directives". Remember that if the kids need that from you, you owe it to them to be firm. Even if they don't like it at the time, they will respect you more, and not less.

I really like your quote about love. Hopefully that's why we're in this field.

Bonus points for pop quiz questions about something you just explained from the front of the room. Randomly done.

• This answer could really benefit from some explanation on how this would help with increasing students' attention. Could you add some explanation about that? – ItamarG3 Jun 20 '17 at 10:20

Divide the room down the middle. Left hand desk face left, right hand desk face right. Aisle down the middle. Get a wireless keyboard/mouse setup and move around. Turn all desks 180 degrees so the kids have to turn around to look at the board. Get a remote management system for the lab so you can control computers. These are all solutions.

When I speak, which I try to keep to a minimum: Short instructions (duplicated on handouts or board), I enforce the following rules.

Students will:

• Rules for the whole school (they call it active listening):
• Face the person that is addressing the class. Teacher, other student, visitor.
• Not talk or fidget or make a noise.
• Pay attention and listen to the best of their ability, so that they can answer questions.