Saturday, October 10, 2020

Mind the attentional gap when teaching on Zoom

As classroom teachers, we're well aware of the ways distractions and multitasking can undermine student learning. Our brains are engineered with extremely limited attentional capabilities owing to the fact that back in the caveman days, we didn't need the same ability to concentrate to survive on the African savanna that it takes today, for example, to pass an intro physics course, read Russian literature, or many of the other intellectual tasks of modern life (which is a reason they're so hard). Rather, our brains were designed to serve us well as the hunters and gatherers that we are. In fact, some studies have found that a distracted brain that today would be characterized as ADHD under the DSM actually made our ancestors better, more successful hunters back in the day. Indeed, our brains are more naturally inclined toward distraction than the ability to concentrate which is why giving students an internet enabled laptop during class and expecting them to stay on task amounts to wishful thinking. 

Of course as teachers we have the same hard-wired limitations on our attentional abilities as do the students. And teaching via Zoom is stretching those attentional capabilities to the limit. That's because there are many more things competing for our limited attention span during a typical Zoom class compared to a traditional, in-person, face-to-face one. Among them, managing the screen share function, toggling between slides, checking the chat box, using the whiteboard, managing the break-out rooms, and scanning student faces to figure out whether they're getting it or not. And that's when the class is going well, never mind dealing with all the technical glitches and on the spot trouble-shooting we're now having to do in addition to teaching. At the same time, we're also trying to make each class "flow" as much as possible by minimizing the dead spots and awkward silences that occur when switching screens and toggling between slides.

All of this takes far more of our attentional bandwidth than in-person, face-to-face teaching in a physical classroom. As for me, I'm definitely more exhausted by the end of each two hour class and I'm hearing the same from nearly everyone I know who's teaching via Zoom this semester from high school to law school. Some have suggested that it's because we're all working much harder to read physical cues, facial expressions, and other body language from our students to discern meaning than we would during an in-person class. 

Consequently, as professors teaching online during a pandemic, we need to be thinking more carefully about ways we can conserve our attentional bandwidth during class. It's important not just to prevent our own exhaustion and burn-out but we also want to remain sharp and fully engaged with our students and the lesson plan during class. As the old adage goes, to engage others, we need to be engaged ourselves.

Thus, it's even more important that we keep it as simple as possible to conserve that attentional bandwidth. Maybe that's what the new "classroom" mantra should be in the time of Covid; "keep it simple." For me that's meant working harder to plan each class lesson in a way that strips away the extraneous and gets the lesson plan down to the core, central points I need to make (which is also made necessary due to the fact that even the simplest lessons in my legal writing class seem to take longer to get across to students when teaching via Zoom because of the nature of this modality). Don't try to juggle too many slides or screen shares during class. That's required extra forethought on my part to plan lessons in a way that minimizes the number of slides I show while also trying to increase the impact of each slide or screen share. It also means reducing the amount of supplemental materials I show in class, like samples and exemplars, which itself requires more planning and forethought to maximize the impact of the ones that make the cut. I think this extra level of lesson planning is another reason why so many teachers are saying they feel exhausted after each Zoom session.

In sum, because of the many pedagogical challenges Zoom presents, it's extra important that we find ways to conserve our attentional bandwidth by simplifying class lessons. If the material doesn't lend itself to simplification (which may be the case with many law school courses), then we need to focus on our delivery of it. By coincidence, I had been scheduled last September (before getting waylaid by an injury) to speak at a teaching conference  hosted by Sturm College of Law in Denver on "best practices" for online legal education. My talk involved summarizing some meta-studies on the effectiveness of online education (research on file with the author). One of the conclusions to be drawn from the research is that teaching online is more demanding than its in-class counterpart and therefore, arguably, those classes should be assigned to the most talented and dedicated teachers among us. Now in the time of Covid, each of us is striving to be better than we were before given the unique challenges of teaching by Zoom. That means minding the attentional gap for the benefit of both students and ourselves by keeping it simple. 


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