From struggling undergraduate to PhD student

I was suspended for a semester as an undergraduate. I came to Virginia Tech in 2011 as a freshman. I was thrown into an incoming freshman class of around 5,000 students. My high school graduating class had 23 people in it. We were a small, close-knit group and I had had the same teachers since 10th grade. I came in as a University Studies student with the dream of getting into engineering. In high school I had always been better than average at math and science and I thought that engineering seemed like an obvious fit. After a semester of terrible performance, I was put on probation. After another semester of more of the same, I was suspended. At the time, it was devastating. But looking back on the experience now, I am able to appreciate the positive changes it helped me to realize in my academic career.

There were several reasons for this turn of events – some in my control, and some under the control of the University environment:

  1. I didn’t go to class as much as I should have.
  2. I was not prepared for the anonymity that massive class sizes provided.
  3. I was convinced of my own multitasking skills (i.e. using laptops in class to ‘take notes’).
  4. I was taught entirely in lecture format classes.
  5. I had a lot of growing up to do.

The themes of this week revolve around teaching styles and obstacles to student learning. I’d like to take this time to address lecture-style classes and use of technology in class.

Regarding lectures, as the readings have shown, there are some positives and negatives. For the student, it is useful to be lectured to in a well-balanced education. However, it cannot be the only method that instructors use. In many of the classes that freshmen are expected to take, lecture is the primary teaching tool. It seems as if that norm may be changing in recent years, but students could really benefit from less lecture and more active forms of learning. In the classes that I teach now, I try to mix it up as much as I can. I like assigning in-class group exercises, discussions, and presentations. Yes, lecture is still necessary. And yes, there are still some students who do not engage in class and despite my best efforts, resist my efforts to pull them in. But, overall, when students are given the opportunity to share their thought processes and grapple with tough issues, rather than just listening to someone else talk about them, it seems (in general) that the material sinks in a little more.

Now on to the issue of laptops – a much debated issue. Honestly, after reading about whether they should be allowed in class and engaging in countless discussions with peers and professors, I still don’t know where I stand on this. I truly don’t think that people can multitask. But I also don’t know whether it’s the instructor’s responsibility to ‘force’ students to pay attention, or if that’s even possible. Although smartphones and laptops are recent technological advances, daydreaming has been around for a long time. If you take away one distraction, it’s very possible that students could find another. I will say, that in my own experience, I missed a lot of opportunities to learn as an undergrad due to my laptop use. It wasn’t until I took a class in my first semester back from suspension, when a professor had the whole class complete an exercise designed to show our futile attempts at multitasking that I put away the laptop in class for good. Sure, I got it out now and again when needed. But from that point, I knew that if I had it out, I probably wouldn’t be paying attention to what was going on around me. The point of that story is to say that maybe it’s not the instructor’s job to force students to put away the laptops and pay attention. But, maybe it’s a teachable moment. Instructors can demonstrate the harm that laptops are having on their student’s focus and attention and maybe convince a few of them of the benefits of giving the class that they’re in a little more of their attention.

I started out this post with the story of my failures during undergrad. I learned a lot of lessons as I plummeted downwards and I also learned a lot as I struggled to improve. I came out the other side as a pretty decent graduate student. So, while I might have been an undergraduate with some of the worst habits and zero interest in my classes, I learned for myself what it took to succeed and (probably more importantly) learn.


  • Deb

    A lot of this really resonated with me. I did really well in my first couple years of undergrad but it was’t because I was listening in class. I went to class and I had my laptop out a lot of the time and I wasn’t listening. For me, it wasn’t because I didn’t like the material, it was because the professor didn’t engage me. I don’t learn well in a lecture environment, I learn from doing. I did well because I left class each day after taking in none of the info and I studied for hours and I worked with the material. Now that I’m in grad school and I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that I can study about a quarter as much if I do listen but this leaves me wondering how many young college students are leaving class having taken in none of the material because they weren’t engaged?

    • admin

      Deb, I also learn by doing much more than I do from listening. I commented on John’s post this week about how some of this could be the result of maturity. As people grow up and learn what it is that they care about, they are able to put in the effort and prioritize things that used to be overlooked. Thanks for your comment!

  • Shannon Roosma

    I so appreciate your post, both for your openness in sharing your story and in the points that you make about decisions to prohibit technology use in the classroom. I agree that we, as students, are able to find plenty of ways of not paying attention even if all of our devices are taken away. I also really appreciate what you said about the roles of both professors and students in technology use and engagement in the classroom. Though my perspective may be different when discussing elementary or high school level students, when we are discussing technology use in classrooms on a higher ed level then we are talking about influencing/controlling the behavior of fellow adults. Though many of these students are still relatively young and may experience some growing pains along the way, ultimately I believe that at this level of education it is the student’s choice of whether (or how much) they are paying attention in class and by which tools they choose to be distracted.

    • admin

      Shannon, I totally agree! It’s like learning how and when to use technology is itself something our classes are teaching us. I really like the way you put it as ‘growing pains’. College/University instructors are no longer in the same position of authority/power as elementary, middle and high school teachers. Sure, they control student’s grades, but they cannot force students to learn and some of that does reside in the hands of the students.

  • Vibhav Nanda

    I agree with you insofar that if you take away one distraction, students could find another one — for instance day dreaming. Daydreaming is a consequence of a “boring” lecture, but social media is so addictive that students barely pay attention to the lecture; consequentially they are seldom able to discern if the lecture was boring or not. The big reason I am against using technology (social media) in class is because its usage is contagious and distractive on a community level. If I see a student watching funny cat videos on facebook, in front of me, I would also want to watch them (distractive on a community level) hence I would take out my phone/laptop and go on facebook to watch funny cat videos (contagious).

    • admin

      Vibhav, Interesting take on technology like a contagion! I’m not sure I completely agree with you because I think that individual agency still plays a role and just because one student sees another misusing laptops/phones in class doesn’t mean they have to join in. However, I do think that while it might not cause other students to join in, it is infectious in a classroom in a different way. It can be very distracting to students who are trying to pay attention when there are other stimuli in the room. It is also very distracting for the instructor. When an instructor is trying to hold the attention of a room and cannot meet any of the student’s eyes, it can be both disheartening and a little off-putting.

      Just one other comment, I have seen the community level distraction you are talking about in one class that I taught. It was a small class and students began a group message that they would post in during class. Although I don’t think a total technology ban is necessary to fight that, I think there need to be methods to discourage certain types of virtual activity in class.

  • Raymond Thomas

    I, like you, struggled in undergrad and it wasn’t until I put away the laptop (or disabled the internet connect for set periods of time without being to reactivate it) that I really began to excel. I think that the debate around laptops often glosses over the fact that university level courses aren’t universally failing all students at all times. Some students (such as myself) actually excel when I focus on a lecture based course. I retain information much better when it is presented in a coherent and outlined format, even if the professor has no visual aids or has a monotonous voice! This is also surely the case for numerous other students out there in the population, probably not a majority but some. I feel like the debate has passed that by. What happens to those students when the method of teaching changes to draw in other types of learners?

    • admin

      Ray, I think the answer to your question is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. I think there are a few different things that instructors and institutions can take into account to put out the best instruction and for students to learn the most.
      1) What is the instructor’s strength? Some of them are very skilled at lecturing and may not be fantastic at facilitating discussion, or vice versa. I think there’s something to be said to putting instructors to work in a way that uses their skills as best as the class can.
      2) which method will benefit the most students. Yes, I know that this approach has some flaws
      3) Techniques to incorporate different teaching/learning styles into one class. Recitations at VT seem to fall into this category. Big lectures 1 or 2 times a week followed by small meetings intended for discussion or problem-sets.

      What do you think?

  • Riya Nandi

    Thanks for sharing this story! And I resonate to the fact that laptops and mobiles are distracting, even as a graduate level student I find myself getting distracted by the blink of my phone. Even if I am interested in the lecture, I get tempted to check the notification, it has become like a force of habit. And I agree completely with Vibhab, social media use is contagious. If friends in a whatsapp group are chatting away, I would pick up my phone and join the discussion in fear of being left out; leaving important tasks or zoning out of lectures. We humans are social creatures, and always tend to fall in a collective motion of similar behavior. I feel limiting the use of phones and laptops in a classroom, along with remodeling the structure of lessons, to keep students more engaged with the topic being taught, should do a better job than just favoring use of any technology unrestricted. Because, nowadays even school students take cellphones to classes, and surely they are not old enough to realize when is a good time to pay attention and not text away. And yes at the end of the day it is the student’s choice whether they want to be attentive or not, but we can at least guide them till they are mature enough to make those calls.

  • Arash

    Having done my undergrad outside the US system, I experienced a different class culture where nobody would even think of taking out a laptop or a cell phone for any purpose. I can confirm that the firm ban did not help with attention and engagement at all. I remember the endless closed-mouth yawns I did during classes. I think having the technology at hand could actually help me supplement the monotonic lectures with my own (quick) research. Of course, that also means that If I wanted to, I could use the same device to play candy crush, but I think building the self-discipline and taking responsibility for one’s education is actually an important part of learning, so failure becomes part of it too.

  • timstelter

    Thanks for the story Aislinn! It is humbling to hit rock bottom and to be able to reflect and accept issues from both your own perspective and the university’s perspective. As someone who came from a smaller high school system, I know I would have struggled at VT if I was an undergrad here. I actually went to a college of 5000 people big (still big but not 35,000 big) and I found class sizes there were way more manageable at the 20 – 45 people range. I even noticed then that 45 people in a class highly limited professors 1-on-1 interactions with students which was highly unusual for my style of learning (i.e. talk to the professors more informally on subjects I didn’t get). Which leads me to my thought on if laptops can help intervene in larger classes to help with the engagement factor and to reduce the anonymity fell. In other words — high advanced clickers with the potential to do more than clicking.

    Lastly, my two cents are you’ll make for a better educator than most just because you have experienced that “rock bottom” point. To have it reflect in your teaching would be a major benefit to future students of yours.

  • Ben Kirkland

    Powerful, Aislinn! The teacher I’m TA’ing for required pen & paper and requested everyone take notes by hand. He allowed Surfaces or Tablets, but only if they were using a stylus to draw and take notes – no typing. As someone who undergrad’d on the analog system of handwriting, I was totally on board with it. The students seem engaged; I see them writing down ideas as I walk the room during the lecture; sketched ideas with notated arrows abound. Some people are still nodding themselves awake, but as you mentioned, it’s probably to be expected. Thankful you were able to push through the struggles – it’s allowed the rest of us to see your perspective!

  • Davon Woodard

    I too was asked to take a “take a break” from the academic environment at MSU during my undergraduate years, and like you it was due to both internal and external factors. Not in response to your post, but from our discussion in class week, there were some instances when students were described as “just checking a box,” or “not interested/engaged in learning.” However, throughout my experience I was, and still am, a learner. I think we (as professors/educators) have to be careful about this labeling.

    I also was in undergrad prior to laptops and campus wide wifi, and returned 12 years later when a laptop was a requirement. The thing that I take away from these varied experiences, in lecture format, is that students who aren’t going to engage, will not regardless of a laptop or not. One author discussed the fact that students look at their phones and don’t engage prior to class. Well, we didn’t before laptops and phones, either. One thing that I’ve told my students is that as they progress, they become more responsible for their education, so if you want to look at Facebook, sleep, or whatever, you’re an adult.

    I’ll preface my thought by saying we should have varied formats to meet a wide array of learning styles. There is a certain amount of social control that is exhibited in this versus autonomy. In my MS, I had a professor who had a no-electronic policy. Was this because we were doing engaging exercises? No? This was his preference as a teacher, not me as a student and learner.

  • Khaled Alshehri

    I like your post, and I think I had the same situation that you have. I had studied my undergraduate back home with the old way of traditional classrooms, but when I came to the US for my master, there was a great jump in my academic achievement, and that for sure of using the digital learning.

  • Nayara

    I totally agree with you that IS NOT the instructor’s responsibility to ‘force’ students to pay attention in class. In this sense, i do not believe that smartphones and laptops should be banned from the classroom. For me, each student should be held accountable for its actions. If they decide Facebook is more important than a lecture, let them be! However, if the use of smartphones or laptops are preventing the good flow of the class, I believe that professors should make clear to students that they should leave the classroom. Also, these technologies are not always bad! Many students rely on their smartphones or laptops to clarify concepts they did not understand , or even to translate words they are not familiar with!

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