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Back to paper: supporting university student learning in the age of screens

Two years ago I had a particularly revealing experience in one of my classes. As I walked around monitoring student work, I noticed that at least two thirds of them were using their lap-top computer for purposes unrelated to the class. It was March, and many of them were editing drafts of their TFG (end of degree dissertation). Others were chatting on Whatsapp. Many were doing both.

Laptops abound in class!

Students sometimes come to class with the idea that they can sit through the session minding their own business and somehow make up for it at home, just reading through the Powerpoint presentation. That may be so in cases of traditional lecturer-centered instruction, but it is misled in the kind of student-centered learning scenarios recommended in this blog. And even more so when students are trying to process concepts and ideas in a foreign language, as in many EMI settings.

That same year, I visited PH Zug, in Switzerland, where I was initially surprised by my Swiss colleague’s use of a course package much resembling the ones I used in my student time in the 1990s. A paper package in the age of Moodle and e-campuses?

Sample pages from an ELT Methodology package used at PH Zug, Switzerland

Looking at its contents, I noticed that it offered a nice combination of theory, tasks and, perhaps more importantly, space and boxes for students to record their notes. I shared this with my colleagues back at Comillas and, while not moving away from Moodle-centered documentation, we have lately been handing out a number of worksheets such as the one below:

The rationale is simple. In an age in which students are reluctant to take notes, worksheets help students to have an outline of the class, as well as an opportunity (if not an obligation) to keep a record of their tasks and discussions – and this without the need to open the laptop. And even if the students choose to complete the worksheet in digital format (also available), the task-oriented nature of such documents help them stay focused, instead of drifting off.

Further, in EMI settings, we have found that the worksheet approach helps to scaffold group work, peer discussion and, especially, speaking in the foreign language during feedback stages.

As perhaps the most obvious con, this approach uses more paper…so let’s make sure our paper is recycled!

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