Augustana Center for Teaching and Learning
Teaching Narrative: Dan Corts
What were you thinking?
As a student, I could never pay attention in lecture courses, so I certainly buy into the need for meaningful student-centered pedagogy. On the other hand, when I have to dart from committee to classroom, it’s really much simpler to stick with what I already know—a well-worn lecture on the day’s topic with a few updates thrown in to seem current.
In my second year as an assistant professor, my dissertation advisor suggested a technique that has taught me a great deal about lecturing. He called it thought sampling but when I share it with my classes I call it What were you thinking? Here’s how it works.
- Before a lecture I arrange to have a signal interrupt me at various points. I usually have a student sit in the back row with a bell (of the hotel front-desk variety).
- I ask the students to keep a sheet of paper separate from their note-taking. I explain that every time we hear the bell, we will all stop and scribble down exactly what we were thinking at that moment.
- At the end of class, I collect the papers and categorize the responses.
Here’s what I’ve learned: 25% of my students are thinking about something completely off-topic within 5 minutes of my lecture, and that number increases to about 40% in 10 minutes. For example:
I hate Paris Hilton.
…but if I use points to eat tonight, I’ll have at least $8 for beer, which is still better than nothing.
Why hasn’t he called me back?
I wouldn’t have expected that girl to have a tattoo on her back.
The first time I saw those responses, I had to reassure myself. It’s ok, more than half are still with me. But only about half of those remaining students (30% of class) were actually paying attention to the message I was trying to convey, as you will see. (And yes, I recognize that some of these sound a bit odd taken out of context.)
I tried doing this in my homework last night and couldn’t do it, but it’s making
perfect sense now.
I could never do brain surgery on a kitten but I have to admit that’s amazing.
I always wondered why my digital camera gives everyone red eye.
The rest of those paying attention to me (about 30% of the total class) were off-topic. In other words, they were thinking about me or something tangential to the lecture. Here are my favorites:
Hey Corts, you’ve got something on your shirt. Probably the same thing that’s on my rough draft. Get a napkin.
White guys don’t pull off baldness as well as black guys.
We’re actually remembering a recipe. There is something about food in every class.
I’ve started to think in terms of a three-part classroom. A third is completely lost, a third is completely on topic, and a third is straddling the fence. I’ve used this as a baseline, so now the question is: How can you increase attention during lectures? By coordinating the sampling technique with certain events, I have found that anecdotes and jokes create attention ‘blips’ in which I can draw just about everyone back to the topic at hand. Talking about well known campus figures does the same (my apologies to Darrin Good and April Johnson for last week’s lecture).
This has been an interesting learning experience for me. It has shaped the way I approach lectures, and it has led me to embrace more engaging activities, assignments, and demonstrations. Although I don’t continue to do thought-sampling regularly, I still use it in two of my courses that involve theories of attention. It turns out that the best method for getting students to pay attention is to ring the bell. Apparently 100% of the class pays attention when the cue sounds. And as for my favorite student response ever?
You want us to do what? What were YOU thinking?