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When teaching, at some points I sometimes have to go over "boring" technical stuff. By doing so, I see students attention decreasing: they look at their mobiles, at their laptops or, in lab environments, fool around in facebook, youtube etc. Their attention comes back when the lecture moves on to "lighter" subjects.

The thing is that you cannot just omit the content from the slides, as it is crucial for the course (e.g. IPv6, TCP/IP protocols etc.). However, only a small percentage of the students seems to be interested, even after I underline that the material will be examined in the final exam.

The question is: how to increase student interest and maximize the percentage of students that actually assimilate the lecture content?

  • Pure speculation, but maybe for things like TCP/IP protocols, where is is just a case of memories the spec, you could give them a summery printout (/pdf). and give them a lot of practice questions, telling them that some of the practice questions will be in the exam (and some exam questions will not be in the practice set. Or a inclass programming lab where they (possibly with, possibly without the spec) have to implement part of it, in a simple simulation. – Lyndon White Jun 2 '15 at 15:02
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    It's ironic that students are slacking off using the very thing you're trying to teach them about... – Moriarty Jun 2 '15 at 16:10
  • add cool hip funky james-bond spy hacker references in you're covering sand-dry protocol related lecture material, daddy-o! This will grab your students attention and keep them licking knowledge out of your Doritos dust covered palm! >:{3 – easymoden00b Jun 2 '15 at 20:01
  • As a student there have definitely been times when I have tuned out most of the lecture, for a variety of reasons: (1) sometimes I already knew the material, (2) sometimes it was so boring I couldn't listen, (3) sometimes it seemed like I could pick up the material in 10 minutes later, and I could better use my lecture time to do something else instead. This didn't usually result in me doing poorly in my exams or overall in the class (though it occasionally did), so I wouldn't recommend trying to attract attention if students aren't inclined to give it to you. Just don't take it personally. – Mehrdad Jun 3 '15 at 6:02
  • And, by the way, I only had ~2 professors who prohibited laptops and/or electronics, and it was quite irritating when done on a regular basis. (I could understand the policy for maybe a small portion of one lecture, or maybe one or two specific lectures, but for the whole semester was unnecessary.) The only thing it did was make me be more likely to sleep in class. – Mehrdad Jun 3 '15 at 6:04
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First of all, you can't expect that all students are interested in the same manner. Concentration has its ups and downs over time. Also, some things are dull and will remain so, no matter how good a lecturer presents or how interested the audience is. This doesn't mean that you should skip it on the exam, students just have the choice to absorb it in class or later by themselves.

You seem, however, to face that the majority of students is uninterested. You could try to change the dynamic of class, for example, by going over the "heavy" parts at the beginning. That may include that you pace your schedules so, that that particular part of the curriculum comes at the beginning of the next class. If the "heavy" part is too elaborate, try splitting it into meaningful blocks, that can be intersected by "lighter" material, of course in a meaningful way. Ideal would be blocks that you can cover in 20-25 minutes.

Being a good lecturer is not only about the eloquence of talk or the skill of rhetoric, it is also about understanding that how to "pre-chew" the material for a given audience to keep their attention but still convey the knowledge. Dull things must be included, you can't change that. You can, however, change how you approach them.

PS: I don't think forbidding cells, laptops, youtube, etc. would help very much.

7

It seems obvious but: Make it come alive!

My subject is something completely different (philosophy of religion). Under my professor's predecessor (I'm "only" TA), the subject had somewhat of a niche existence. Students went there, because they had to.

Students hate it, when they are just "receivers". They want to be involved. I do not know your field enough to give any particular advice, but I can tell a little what we did.

Instead of just "feeding" the audience with information for the exam, we let them do research on it on their own. We bring quotes, each can choose one and from that they have to figure out who said it and how to understand it. Furthermore my professor and I have some very distinc differences in our views on certain topics (e.g. the "liberus/servus arbitrius"). We both set up small challenges for students where they can try to "silence" us (meaning: bring us to the point where we cannot directly reply to their arguments anymore without having to read up first). They get some small rewards for that. Furthermore we re-introduced the old academic tradition of "disputationes". It's between professors and students and gives them an opportunity to actually use what they learnt.

I don't know if any of these suggestions can be applied to your field, but one thing for sure can: Let them try out and make mistakes. That's where they learn most from.

3

Try to lighten the load as much as possible without reducing the actual amount of information taught. An example I found last week, in a certain setting we want to find the maximum of a function. Now, knowing that we have that gradient is a good thing, because we can optimize it more efficiently; but writing down the specific formula for the gradient is not that useful, unless you are actually going to implement it. And furthermore, computing it in class is even more boring, as it only involves standard algebra manipulations.

Once you have chosen your battles wisely, try to justify why you have to go through this. After all, I know that TCP/IP is that thing that makes computers talk to each other, and I have been very happy not knowing more than that. Some of your students may feel that this is something that only the people working on IPv7 would ever use it. Briefly explain why this is not the case, and why should they learn the details.

Lastly, candy is always good. After a hard lecture learning a complex algorithm, you can explain how someone used it to do something completely unexpected or fun. This gives the motivation to go back to the topic, study it deeper to better understand the particular application.

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Not all students learn in the same way, so not all will find the lecture presentation the best way of understanding or engaging with technical material. Injecting an element of practical or laboratory work is often a way of focussing their attention.

I find with networking they often do not realise that it is technical or detailed. They just look at the surface layer (the application in ISO model) and think they understand how email or the web works because they click on it every day. I ask them to program small clients and parts of protocols and they begin to realise that it may not be as straight forward as they thought, this then brings the lecture material back into context and focus for them. This only works, in my experience, when the practical work has some assessment marks associated with it. It depends if you are in a position to make changes to the assessments and the teaching facilities that you use. Some people might be stuck with an exam and a lecture theatre!

I did create a role playing game to teach some of the aspects of networking protocols which worked fine for 12 year olds, but for some reason I could not get 19 year olds en-masse to engage. Those that understood RPG loved it; but at least I can say I used kinesthetics in computer science teaching.

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    I'd love to see your RPG. A link, please? – Bill Nace Jun 2 '15 at 14:16
  • @BillNace I would like to publish this at some time, so not going to post the URL here. Email me via my university address. Click on profile website etc. to find address.Can show you details privately. – Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩 Jun 2 '15 at 14:21
  • roll 2d6 to see if your packet gets dropped – Brent Baccala Jun 6 '15 at 0:41
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I like many of the answers that have already been posted, but there is one additional aspect that I think is important in all cases -- your own attitude.

Make absolutely sure that you aren't projecting the idea that this topic is boring! You need to raise the energy level and show a very positive attitude toward the topic. Your voice should be loud, your gestures wide, and your face beaming -- you're absolutely blessed to be teaching such a great topic. "Hey, look, isn't this cool? The SYNACK flags being set will tell the client that their request has been accepted -- and further, that the server wants to talk to the client! Whoopee!"

Otherwise, the students will sense your disinterest and immediately head to their laptop, without taking the time to figure out the topic is boring on their own.

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Change the way you deliver content for such topics, and break lectures into segments.

For example, once you get to a technical topic, say "The next topic is going to be a bit technical, so let's take a 3 minute break before we get back to this." They'll have so much more attention if you don't just glide into it.

One thing that's worked well for me in such situations is to just shuffle class. I ask students to leave their seats and come huddle closer to me with their chairs, a bit like in a circle if the tables weren't in the way. You can't do this 3 times per lecture, but once a week is totally possible, and it changes the dynamics: it's more like a personal communication than a lecture, and it allows me to talk in a different way about things I find important. It doesn't work if you need to use the projector of whiteboard, but it allows to talk about the big picture at least. The shuffling to get everyone away from their phones and seats also serves as a nice break from the previous topic and clears everyone's minds.

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Give them a project to do. Tell them that they can create any program they want, as long as they use the technical stuff you talk about.

They could, for example, develop an RPG. Or, they could make a program that allows them to, say, turn off a computer using another computer.

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I belong to the field of literature and in that to make things clearer our professors give us examples from the daily life. It not only helps to understand the the thing momentarily but it somehow seeps into your mind and you tend to remember it longer than the information given without examples.

Another great technique is to try to elaborate the tough or the boring part in their own language. As in, if English isn't the first language of all the students and they all share the same language then try explaining things in that language. People tend to grasp things faster in their own language than any other language.

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If you're teaching it, and calling it 'boring', what must the students think?

The simple solution is to tell the kiddies that this subject will be on the exam, and it will also be on the retake exam, so it's best to learn it now.

Not all of the problem is yours. If the students don't want to learn, you can't force them. But you also don't have to give them a passing grade if they don't know the correct answers.

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