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Overcoming Course Challenges in the Digital Age

Challenges, like getting students to think critically and engage in class, have plagued instructors since the dawn of higher-education. But, in a technology-fueled, digital world where students have instant access to information, these issues take on a whole new level of complexity. To help better understand ways that faculty can tackle student engagement and critical thinking, we spoke with Psychology Coordinator and Professor Syreeta Washington, M.Ed., of Rowan College at Burlington County.

Understanding the Problem

Professor Washington explained that technology can be an invaluable tool in the classroom, but it can also be an instructor's worst enemy. While digital tools allow students to readily access information, they can also promote intellectual laziness.

Consider Google. How many times have students in your class Googled a topic, checked out the top result and then…nothing? That's as far as their research goes. Students—and the general population for that matter—tend to read through the first search result on the page and assume they know everything they need to know about the topic.

Not only do students refrain from digging deeper into the subject matter or consulting multiple sources, but they also don't think critically about the information they're presented. The internet has trained students to expect immediate results tailored to their needs. Google a term, get the info you want. Consequently, students have trouble making the jump from merely consuming what's in front of them to applying that information to real-world scenarios or situations. Unless that application of information is explicitly presented to them, students struggle with thinking it through to the next level.

A student's ability to look up information so easily forces instructors to teach more critical thinking and analytical skills. Many students don't know how to tell the difference between good and bad information, or how to step back and consider the larger context that information fits into. Students must learn digital intelligence—how to be good consumers of data and go beyond the top search results.

Developing a Solution

To address these challenges, Professor Washington recommends first taking a look at your own mentality, teaching style and expectations when approaching engagement and critical thinking. It can be tempting in many problem situations to assign internal attributions, like laziness or indifference, to students' poor performance. "They didn't do thorough research because they're lazy." "They didn't think critically about this question because they just wanted to get the assignment over with." And while that may be true for some students, it's important to consider the external factors that could be contributing to the problem.

While internet use may not be an excuse for intellectual laziness, it's a fact that students learn and study differently in today's digital environment. Think about the problem in the context of the age in which they live. "They didn't do thorough research because they don't know what thorough research really is." "They didn’t use critical thinking to apply what they learned during the exam because they don't know how."

Once you can identify the underlying external factors that are causing the problem, it becomes easier to look for ways to make those factors—the internet, digital acumen, etc.—work with students, not against them. Take advantage of students' propensity for technology by using technology to solve the problem.

For example, consider how students are consuming information online versus the course materials you are using. On the internet, information is presented in bite-sized, high impact snippets. Rather than assigning an entire chapter of a textbook, use digital learning software to present shorter chunks of vital information that don't dilute the substance of the content. Make the information more accessible the way the internet does, and students will have an easier time consuming it.

Or, if you're having trouble getting students to engage in active learning, use the technology at your disposal to encourage in-class engagement. Try using a polling software, videos or an interactive assignment to spark an exciting group discussion. You can use technology to push students beyond memorization to application.

Whatever the situation, investigate the digital tools available to you to facilitate learning and think about ways you can use them to your—and your students'—advantage.

To get personalized tips for addressing other course issues, take our Course Challenges Quiz.