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Addressing Harvard’s Attention Crisis

By Casey M. Allen
By Lucas T. Gazianis, Crimson Opinion Writer
Lucas T. Gazianis ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.

Every so often in lecture, I open a new tab in my browser and see a set of bookmarks — including Duolingo, the HUDS menu, and The Crimson. As a result, I’m always one click away from a captivating article or a quick Greek lesson — not to mention my Notification Center, home to all my texts, emails, and news alerts, ensuring that my attention is divided even when I don’t want it to be.

I doubt I’m the only one whose attention can sometimes wander during class. Over the past few years, I’ve grown increasingly worried that my constant online connection has disconnected me from the world-class educational opportunities sitting just beyond my laptop screen.

There is an attention crisis — one that threatens to rob us of many of the benefits of a Harvard education. After all, there’s a reason we go to class at all rather than just study independently in a library.

In embracing digital learning tools as completely as we have, we’ve forfeited much of our willpower, if not our ability, to stay on task. And we’d be better off if we could fix it.

So, how can we keep students engaged? I spoke to peers and professors about attendance, laptops, and lectures to better understand how to remedy the powerful attention crisis distracting my generation. Fixing this problem in the classroom requires interfacing with students directly.

Engagement is the Game

When I discussed this crisis with educators and classmates, one thing became clear: Professors must employ more creative strategies to drive student engagement.

One class, Gen Ed 1189: “U.S. K-12 Schools: Assumptions, Binaries, and Controversies,” already incorporates innovative techniques, and professors would do well to learn from it.

Matilda Marcus ’24, a student in the class, told me that the professor solicits weekly feedback from students in order to inform her teaching style.

“The professor actually asks us what we want to be the same or different every week,” she said.

The course uses a “plus/delta” feedback system — in which a “plus” indicates an aspect of the session that the students enjoyed and a “delta” indicates an aspect that should change.

And the course staff are “always willing to adapt” based on this feedback, according to Patris Haxhiaj ’25, another enrollee.

“The first two or three weeks of the course, on our first plus/delta, a lot of students mentioned we’re enjoying group work, we’re enjoying the interactions with other students,” said Haxhiaj. “And then as a delta, many students said that they wanted to be lectured to more, because they felt like there wasn’t enough of a traditional lecturing component to the course. And the next week, there was a more significant portion of the class that was lecturing.”

The constant feedback generates buy-in among the students, encouraging them to engage — despite, of course, having access to their laptops.

“I think that they trust us, and I definitely feel like I have autonomy over my own learning in that class. And then if I am cheating myself out of learning, then I am doing that to myself as an adult,” Marcus told me.

Furthermore, Gen Ed 1189 is flexible. It blends traditional lecturing with group work, breaking up lectures by having students get up to discuss course topics with classmates on the other side of the room.

Alison Frank Johnson, Chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, similarly focuses on dialogue in her classes, frequently stopping class and encouraging active participation.

“I don’t just ask: ‘Does anybody have any questions?’ I ask them questions. We talk about every image as a group,” Johnson said. “And this worked phenomenally well.”

According to Johnson, a crucial component of driving engagement is the professor’s ability to convince students that their presence in class is important and valuable.

“So I want to create a feeling for my students that I care if they’re there or not, that the material that we cover is important, that their being there makes a difference to me and their classmates, and not that it’s a disciplinary thing.”

Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about: making class time more valuable.

According to Oliver Knill, a preceptor in Mathematics, class time is so important because it can provide “little gems” — unique insights that students cannot receive from their readings or by watching EdX videos.

Professors therefore need to think about better ways to engage their students, to disrupt the 75-minute monotony that makes it so easy to tune out and surf an email inbox. I’d wager that if more courses incorporated student feedback in a similar way as Gen Ed 1189, students would feel more autonomous over their learning and tune into classes more readily.

As Marcus put it: “Lecturing isn’t working. Why are we still doing it?”

Leave It To Professors

But in an effort to engage students, we should be wary of implementing sweeping, draconian policies that undermine professors’ autonomy to set their own class rules.

For example, College-wide mandatory attendance policies or blanket device bans are the wrong approach. These solutions might be fit for certain classes, but they also risk alienating students and professors without achieving their aims.

Harvard’s famed introductory computer science course, Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science,” has a single, multi-hour-long lecture each week. Attendance is required, save for a virtual enrollment option that lets students announce conflicts in advance and catch up with lecture recordings.

Students are greeted with HUID swipe machines at each entrance in Sanders Theatre, but that doesn’t stop many of them from finding ways to check in, then check out.

Himal A. Bamzai-Wokhlu ’27, who took CS50 last semester, told me that the course’s attendance policy, even if it gets students in the door, often doesn’t get them to stay.

Bamzai-Wokhlu described two common occurrences. First: “People swipe and leave. They won’t even attend lecture; they’ll just swipe and walk around Sanders and then leave through the other side.”

“About half the class will leave at the halfway point,” she added.

Yes, students might physically attend class more with such a policy. But unless the professor actively engages them once they’re in class, they’ll check right out.

“I think a lot of people pay half attention,” said Bamzai-Wokhlu.

The school could also prohibit the use of electronics in class to force people to pay attention, but to what effect? It’s true that typical lecture classes, at least outside of STEM fields, where laptop use is essential, would likely benefit from limiting the use of technology.

Indeed, distraction probably would decrease — even if not cured completely — simply because there would be fewer other things to do during class. But the bigger point is this: The responsibility should rest with professors, not the College, to devise and implement these policies, because these judgments depend on the context of each class.

Even if students are distracted, “they’re not children,” Johnson told me. She worries that draconian policies could communicate an obsession with rules that undermines “the kind of community feeling I’m trying to create in my class.”

David L. Howell, a professor of Japanese history, shared a similar sentiment about student autonomy.

“My own attitude is that students are adults and that they should take responsibility for their own actions,” he said.

As such, the College would be better off leaving decisions about laptop policies and attendance policies to the discretion of the professors. Professors might have other means to increase engagement — even cold-calling.

Bamzai-Wokhlu is also taking Gen Ed 1068: “The United States and China,” in which the professor bans laptops, always grades attendance, and frequently cold-calls students. Bamzai-Wokhlu told me that the policies ultimately work to engage students.

“The engagement and learning is really good from this strategy,” she said. “I think it’s made me better at answering questions on the fly.”

That said, she cautioned against the rules as a universal model, especially for STEM classes.

“For some of the more math-y or CS classes, I’m not sure if that strategy makes sense. I think, a lot of times, you have to look things up and follow along.”

There is No Panacea

Certainly, there is no single strategy that will improve student engagement in class. But it is clear that engaging students requires professors to adopt a more holistic strategy that stretches far beyond simply establishing rules about attendance or laptop use. Fundamentally, it requires making students buy into the course model and, ultimately, to want to show up and learn.

Drawing students away from their laptops will be hard, but professors can start by making lectures more engaging to students and building from there. Our speedy devices can hold students’ attention. It’s time for our classes to do the same.

Lucas T. Gazianis ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.

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