Multitasking helps students tune in, not out

Instructors shouldn’t scold students for meeting their own learning needs

Mandating that students do nothing during class is ripe with ableism. PHOTO: Gudrun Wai-Gunnarsson / The Peak

by Serena Bains, Staff Writer

Before the pandemic forced us all to watch our professors struggle with technical difficulties through a screen, we were doing so in-person. Even then, I was one of those students who looked like they were never paying attention. I would be balancing two screens and a journal on my desk while listening to music through my headphones. While I understood the perception that I wasn’t paying attention, it was one rooted in a lack of empathy and a misunderstanding of what differing learning styles can look like. Professors should promote a diverse learning environment, instead of punishing anyone who learns differently from the norm.

Every student knows their own learning style best. For example, journaling helps me get out any intrusive thoughts that affect my ability to focus and music prevents any auditory distractions. Despite this, once in a while professors would ask me if I was listening during lecture or advise that I listen more. It became common enough that at the start of the semester I would go to office hours simply to disclose how difficult it was to focus without the help of my practices, and to ensure them that I was listening and not being disrespectful. Not only did I have to take the time to go to every professor’s office hours — which is a nightmare for someone with anxiety — I was also put in a position where I felt I had to justify my preferences. Often, it would result in disclosing my disabilities, when I wouldn’t have done so otherwise. I ultimately learned less from the class and lost potential office hours to help, which wouldn’t have happened if the professors were understanding from the start. 

Now with remote learning I find myself in the same situation, where professors are being more strict about “being present.” Some classes mandate that cameras remain on and that students don’t distract others in front of them by doing anything other than taking notes. Beyond not respecting the privacy of students’ homes, this practice is simply unrealistic for people who rely on focusing in other ways. 

Being at home creates a more distracting learning environment than ever, therefore, attempting to focus requires greater work. Disincentivizing personal practices that help students focus is absurd and prevents students from learning, as opposed to promoting their learning. In this remote learning environment professors consistently ask students to be patient, which is reasonable. But this request is hypocritical when professors do not have the same patience for students trying to learn in the best way they know how.

Not to mention that a practice does not have to be aimed at a disabled student to be ableist. While mandating that students’ cameras are on and that they avoid being “distracting” does disproportionately affect disabled students, it also affects abled students. Everyone has accessibility needs when it comes to learning. Some of which include dividing your focus with things like knitting, listening to music, writing, drawing, stimming, and crafting, to name a few. Denying students their accessibility needs not only prevents students from learning, but is discriminatory. 

Whether in-person or online, professors should teach from the standpoint of universal design, which provides all students an equal opportunity to learn. By having a flexible learning environment that accommodates all individual learning styles, not only will students be less distracted, but they’ll be able to learn and address their individual accessibility needs. When professors extend the same patience and respect they expect in return it promotes a more diverse learning experience that everyone can find value in.