Lectures are often too long with too few breaks to keep students interested

long lectures
Could shortening lectures and increasing the number of breaks increase motivation and productivity? Source: Shutterstock.

You have no doubt all been there at one point or another; sat in a lecture bored out of your mind, willing the hands on the clock to speed up and reach the hour so you can leave.

Is it because your lecturer is dull? Or you don’t care about the material you’re learning? While possible, it’s doubtful. Chances are it’s just a little taxing to sit there doing nothing but listen for hours on end.

New data from Flipd, an app that self-regulates students’ phone use, could revolutionise the length and structure of university lectures. The app is collecting data on which points in a lecture students switch off from the class and switch on their phones.

Assistant Teaching Professor of Psychology at Pennsylvania State University Dr. Alicia Drais-Parrillo began using Flipd in 2016 and told Study International the optimum length of lecture for her students varies from class to class.

It is “tough” to determine what is best for each individual student collective, she explained.

“It varies by course and level. I have some classes that lend themselves to a 50-minute class period and others that really need 75 minutes,” Drais-Parrillo said.

“Usually the distinction lies in the complexity of the material and length of discussions we get.”

What do the numbers say?

Flipd co-founder Alanna Harvey shared some of the app’s data exclusively with Study International.

“Out of three randomly selected classes of 300 to 400 students, we found that a 45-minute lecture had the highest average time spent ‘Flipd Off’ compared to all other lectures that were two or more hours in length.”

When students use the app to ‘Flipd Off’, they are unable to access certain things on their phones, including their social media accounts.

“We found that students in a 45-minute lecture were 50 percent more likely to spend almost the entire class (39 out of 45 minutes) off their phones,” Harvey explained.

“Whereas students in a two-hour lecture were more likely to spend only 90 out of 120 minutes off their phones, and in some cases only half of the lecture.”

It can be hard for lecturers to know what to do when faced with a sight like this. Source: GIPHY.

Harvey admits “while this alone would not be considered statistically significant and would require further analysis, I think at face-value it says a lot about shorter classes and the impact it has on a student’s willingness and ability to pay attention [for] a longer time period.”

Is the time of day a factor?

According to Flipd’s data, the earlier in the day a seminar is, the more likely students are to remain off their phones.

In an 8am – 11am class, students spent 75 percent of time off their phones. Interestingly, Flipd reported that in a two hour morning lecture, the same group of students who spent three quarters of class time paying attention, managed around only half of class time ‘Flipd Off’ in the afternoon session.

Social media can pull students away from learning. Source: GIPHY.

So what are students doing when they’re not engaged?

Social media seems to play a key role in students’ use of mobile devices and their disengagement with the seminar.

Assistant Professor of Biopsychology at The State University of New York College at Old Westbury Dr. Lorenz S. Neuwirth told Study International “one critical factor is a student’s own self-promoting through their social media accounts.”

These “are by far the most reinforcing of all cellular phone use applications as it provides real-time updates on how the world pays attention to them.”

He said:

“Perhaps, social media offers much stronger self-valued reinforcers with a faster turn-around-time and frequencies than other avenues of life.”

Drais-Parrillo agreed: “I think, students, over the last few years, have become more distracted and people, in general, struggle with delay of gratification.”

Social media consumes a lot of most modern students’ attention. Source: GIPHY.

Drais-Parrillo told Study International when she was a graduate student she taught and assisted in various courses. She ventured down other avenues for a few years before returning to teaching part-time in 2010.

“I immediately noticed a change in students’ focus, expectations, and isolation compared to 1997-2000,” she said.

In 2012 when she began teaching full-time, she said she noticed even more drastic changes to student behaviour in the classroom.

“Students are consumed with the ends, not the means of education and getting immediate information about their performance.”

Could ‘tech breaks’ work instead of shorter lectures?

A solution to the problem could be the use of regular breaks to allow students to play on their phones should they so wish. With the craving satisfied, students may then more likely to go back to concentrating on the task at hand.

Researcher Larry Rosen claims students need a tech break every 15 minutes.

“Understand that your students have a short attention span,” Rosen told NPR. “We have watched students study something very important and even with us watching them they only attend less than 10 of the 15 minutes.”

So perhaps the answer lies in regular breaks rather than shorter lectures. Students would still be able to spend the time ‘in class’ on their phones but without missing any of the lecture.

Maybe it isn’t about lecture length but rather how the time is spent

Dr. Drais-Parrillo claimed students are unlikely to be engaged if she simply talks at them for the whole duration of the lecture.

“I don’t like to speak at students the entire time,” she said.

“I don’t pander to gimmicks to keep students entertained, but I do like to switch gears for students to move from listening to speaking, to analyzing, etc.,” she said.

For Drais-Parrillo a sign of an unsuccessful lecture is if she spent “80 to 90 percent of the class” talking.

However, she admits: “That may be in my own head because I like students talking and learning from each other. So, my expectations probably differ from others focused on semantic knowledge.”

Unfortunately, no matter what, students are likely to be tempted to check their phones during class. Whether it’s through tech breaks, shorter lectures, or apps like Flipd, educators might want to consider how to combat the waning attention span of the modern student.

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