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Note-Taking vs. NYT Games: Student Engagement in the Classroom

Halfway through a 75-minute lecture, you look around the room to peer at other students’ laptops. Instead of pages of quickly scribbled notes, you will likely find laptop screens displaying text chains between friends or that day’s Wordle, according to Elizabeth Edinger.

“In some of my classes, people are playing New York Times games the entire class,” Edinger, MCAS ’27, said.

This phenomenon is not uncommon at Boston College, according to Edinger. Edinger said most lecture-based classes cultivate an environment where technology and the professor battle for the students’ attention.

“Some classes … professors are just lecturing, but they’re not fostering any conversation,” Edinger said. “When people do participate, it is mostly because it is part of their grade.”

Paige Baldus, CSOM ’26, said that in these large lecture halls, she is surprised when she sees students taking notes and not just completing that day’s crossword puzzle.

“In almost all my big classes, and some other less engaging classes, I’m always surprised when people are actually taking notes,” Baldus said. “You are just not expecting such large numbers of people to actually be engaged during a lecture.”

Edinger, Baldus, and other BC students have noticed a lack of engagement and an increase in unrelated technology use during classes. This goes against the University’s core values, according to Michael Serazio, an associate professor in the communication department.

Serazio said BC aims to create reflective people through its core values, and therefore professors have an obligation to create a space where students can escape the technology that demands their constant attention in daily life.

“BC has a goal to try to create deliberate people—people who are fully present and fully reflective about the world around them,” Serazio said. “And these machines, screens, phones, laptops, [and] tablets are very much designed against that.”

To achieve this vision, some classes ban technology entirely, according to Cecilia Hood, MCAS ’27. Hood said these policies help her focus in class. Even when her focus starts to falter, technology bans prevent her from turning to her computer or phone to occupy her time. 

“In any class where you’re allowed to have your computer out, you notice a lot of people just typing in moments when we’re supposed to be in discussion or something,” Hood said. 

Serazio said he used to have a relaxed approach to technology in the classroom—if he was not interesting enough to hold students’ attention for the whole class period, then that was on him, he said. And because students who devote their undivided attention to class often perform better on exams, Serazio allowed students to decide how they would use technology in the classroom. 

“If you spend the whole time doing, you know, crosswords, or texting or watching TikTok, then that is your choice and chances are you won’t do very well on the exams,” Serazio said.

But the pandemic flipped his mindset on technology. A year ago, Serazio said he created a “tech Sabbath” environment within the classroom where he asks students to treat the 75 minutes they spend together as an opportunity to separate themselves from their screens.

“We had a year where all we had was our screens in order to be around other people,” Serazio said. “The miserable experience of social distancing and having to teach on Zoom completely changed how I view the classroom experience and made me realize that our time together in the classroom is not a means to an end—it’s an end in and of itself.”

Even before the pandemic, Serazio said students were tethered to their screens. The classroom environment, however, should be a place that gives students the license to not feel like they have to constantly check their email or distract their minds through computer games.

“I just got sick of screens being between us,” Serazio said. “There’s tons of time in the day that our screens will be there for us, but I think students want somebody to blame to give them the freedom to unplug.”

But, not all professors believe banning technology is the answer to these dilemmas. Brian Smith, a professor and associate dean for research in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development, cautions against a complete technology ban. 

“As a professor, I am actively doing this for the class to have them engaged,” Smith said. “And there are always ways to use technology to enhance what we’re doing.”

Smith said technology should be seen as a positive tool that can strengthen learning. By setting expectations for how students should interact with their phones and computers, technology can foster a stronger learning environment, he said.

“There are obvious and immediate positive impacts of technology, and it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t have a lot of these computational tools,” Smith said. “To have access to the internet and the opportunity to access much information really helps us do knowledge work in better ways.”

Technology can strengthen the classroom experience by making classes more impactful and meaningful for students, Smith said.

“How could we promote the use of technology to help people think about formation, like what gives you joy, and helping people think about their purpose in life?” Smith said. “Those are things we don’t often consider when we think about computer technology in the classroom.”

Smith said it does not make sense to ban technology in the classroom, and that instead, professors should help their students use it in responsible and productive ways that enhance the learning experience. For example, he said spell check, online calculators, and softwares like Grammarly, an AI writing assistance tool, can help students learn more effectively and produce better assignments. 

“We should be changing the narrative to ask the question of how we use technologies to really amplify experiences,” Smith said. “I’m always thinking, how do these things help us learn?”

According to Smith, banning electronics rather than integrating them into the learning environment is also impractical for some professors. In classes such as Self, Mind, and Society, Hood said having a technology ban would be unrealistic due to the amount of material they learn each class.

“We just consume so much content per class that I feel like I wouldn’t be able to write it all out by hand,” Hood said. “It can be unsustainable for classes like these.”

Even though students can get distracted when using technology in classes, they still need to learn how to integrate technology into their learning without it becoming a hindrance, Hood said.

“It is important to stay on my notes because if not, you get so far behind if you’re not actively engaged,” Hood said. “I put everything on do not disturb and I don’t let myself check my notifications until the end of class.”

Jack Rosen, MCAS ’25, believes the solution to maintaining student engagement lies not in bans on technology but in the structure of classes.

“Just having a more interactive classroom is important,” Rosen said. “An environment where it’s less of the teacher teaching at the students, and one where students are more involved like with breakout sessions … or anything to almost force you to be more engaged with what’s going on.”

To foster environments like these, it is important for professors to notice and to take action when classroom engagement begins to falter, according to Edinger. 

“Halfway through the semester, some professors have been realizing classes are a bit quiet,” Edinger said. “My history professor brought us each a copy of the Boston Globe and we just talked about it, so I think some are trying.”

To make his classes engaging for students, Serazio said he designs the class backwards. He plans them from the perspective of the student, considering how they might process material and how he can help them navigate classroom conversations.

“Ideally, if one of my classes is going well, the students are giving the lecture to me,” Serazio said. “The more I’m talking and the less that students are talking in the classroom, the more it’s a failure.”

While every professor has their own approach to teaching, a class is ultimately something that students and professors build together, Serazio said.

“Both lecturing and discussion-based classes work, just as a professor you have to find your own authentic way of teaching,” Serazio said. “But if either side is not bringing energy, focus, curiosity, and passion, that doesn’t work. It has to be both.”

November 19, 2023