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Our teaching-and-learning experts give you insights on what works in the classroom. Delivered on Thursdays. Teaching is written by Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano. We love hearing from readers, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly. You can also read more articles about teaching and learning.

From: Beckie Supiano

Subject: Teaching: How to Give Students a Break From Their Screens — in an Online Course

This week:

  • I share some examples of ways professors are giving students a break from their screens.
  • I point you toward a good discussion of how to prepare for teaching during election week.
  • I remind you that we’re collecting professors’ stories of teaching through the pandemic.

From Digital Distraction to Zoom Fatigue

A year and a half ago, I wrote a story about digital distraction, quoting a chorus of experts who argued for a broader view of the problem than the reflexive “kids these days” take. “Students,” I wrote, “aren’t digitally distracted in class because they’re students. They’re digitally distracted in class because they happen to be in class.”

The article closed out with comments from James Lang, who argued that instructors should give students something worth paying attention to, at least during key moments of the class — but also not expect to hold their focus every minute.

When I re-read that story last week, I felt like I’d opened a time capsule. Remember laptop bans? Capturing students’ attention is obviously a much greater challenge now, with classes taught online or physically distanced and students under significant stress. Beth wrote about faculty members finding ways to engage them in her latest story — which also quotes Lang, who has a new book out soon on distraction.

It’s strange to think about how worried many people were about the time students spent on screens before all of this, now that so much of what we used to do in person is happening instead on Zoom. As I explained in this story back in April, spending a lot of the day videoconferencing is just plain exhausting.

So I was interested to hear some examples of professors who are making an intentional effort to give their students a break from their screens. Take Lea Pao. This quarter, Pao, an assistant professor of German studies at Stanford University, is teaching a course called “10 Poems That Will Change Your Life.” Even under normal circumstances, she told me, the course is meant to expand students’ horizons: It’s designed to reach students, especially those outside of the humanities, who may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with poetry. Now that she’s teaching remotely, Pao has adjusted the focus of what’s normally a reading- and writing-intensive course. Now, Pao has shifted to using “weekly creative exercises,” like writing out word lists with 25 terms from any subject in which they have expertise.

Another example comes from Michelle Decker, an assistant professor of English at Scripps College, who also teaches poetry. Decker dramatically reworked her syllabi, she said, “with the motto of: be slower, do less.” And she’s been thinking a lot about how to help students step away from their devices.

Decker has students connect with the people around them — their family, their roommates — through an interview assignment. Another assignment was built around going on walks — with their devices left at home.

A poetry course may be particularly well suited to assignments like these. But other things Decker does could be applied broadly. “Some of the things I ask them to do are so basic,” she says. “I have been encouraging them to just use a paper notebook. Spread things out. Take notes.”

Even when she returns to in-person teaching, Decker plans to carry some of this approach forward, she says. She plans to keep using collaborative, creative, and analog assignments. And she hopes to maintain “this pared-down, more intensive, slow-moving approach to learning.” That way, she says, students can have “the space to breathe, and think, and maybe even enjoy what they’re doing.”

Have you found creative ways to give students a break from their screens while deepening their learning? Share your example with me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and it may be included in a future newsletter.

Election Plans

Karen Costa, a faculty developer who specializes in online pedagogy, kicked off a good discussion in a Twitter thread last week, asking: “What is everyone planning in their courses for election week? How will we take care of ourselves, each other, and our learners?”

Many professors are bracing for a challenging stretch in the classroom. They remember the turmoil many campuses endured in the wake of Trump’s election in 2016. And they may be thinking back on the uncertainty the country experienced after the 2000 election — something that traditional-age students won’t even remember. No matter what happens, it’s likely to be difficult for students to focus on their classes.

Costa’s advice: “Reduce uncertainty. Create a simple plan for election week, and start gently communicating it as soon as you can. Let students know what they can expect.” But first, she adds, “take care of yourself. Put your oxygen mask on first. In addition to a voting plan, do you have a mental- and physical-health plan in place for election week?”

We’re interested in hearing professors’ plans for preparing for — and responding to — the election in class. And we’ll be even more curious to hear how you end up using this time with your students once it happens. If you’re interested in sharing your story, please be in touch: beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

We’re Listening

Thanks to everyone who’s described what it’s like teaching through the pandemic via our Google Form. Even though we’ve been in regular touch with instructors about the challenges they face since classes moved online in March, Beth and I have been struck again by how difficult all of this is as we’ve read your responses. It’s not too late to participate, if you haven’t already — or to encourage colleagues to do the same: Here’s the link.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

-Beckie

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.

Beckie Supiano writes about teaching, learning, and the human interactions that shape them. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.