Time is the most valuable commodity anyone owns. Once gone it can never be retrieved. Despite what seems like endless hours spent wasting that commodity, when it’s crunch time college students get down to business. We know this from the most recent Project Information Literacy report that examined student behavior during the last few weeks of the academic semester when papers and project come due. Student can become highly focused and what it takes to do that, as any of us knows from our own college days, is not merely the elimination of distractions but the ability to concentrate our attention on a singular, critical task. Reducing distractions helps, but there is more discipline and willpower required to harness one’s power into a laser-focused energy that directs our attention to the task at hand. With so many more distractions available to disrupt their attention, perhaps there is more academic librarians could do to help students achieve academic success.
Eliminate distractions or accept them
There is growing concern about the need for individuals to pay attention to the task at hand, be it driving, office work or surgery. Yes, even operating room physicians and nurses are creating hazardous conditions when they bring their cellphones or other devices into the operating room. All this feeds a national conversation about our increasing level of distractedness. In higher education it’s generated substantial discussion about students and how their learning is affected by devices that routinely distract them from their studies.
A lone, but much noticed, voice of disagreement belongs to Cathy Davidson, a professor at Duke who published the book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. She acknowledges the problem of attention blindness, our human inability to pay close attention to multiple events or activities; we can miss something important – even totally, right-in-our-face, obvious events. That same weakness means that humans could learn in an entirely new way. If we admit our inability to devote full attention to any single task, then Davidson suggests we’d be better off to work in groups where each person can apply a smaller amount of attention to just a chunk of a project. That may strike some educators as giving students a free pass to spend more time on their social networking or pointless YouTube videos, but Davidson might be on to something.
From a pedagogical perspective, does today’s student learn better by focusing all their attention on one task at a time, doing all they can to push away their 21st-century lifestyle distractions, or is Davidson correct when she advocates for putting students into more collaborative learning environments where they can actually leverage multitasking as a defense against attention blindness? As is most often the case when applying learning theory to classroom practice, there’s no “one size fits all” solution for closing educational gaps.
The best instructors know the virtues of mixing multiple styles to reach all their students, and even better, know individual students well enough to connect with them through their preferred learning style. In their libraries, academic librarians can implement a strategy that offers a mix of styles for the attention challenged. Imagine a spectrum of study and interaction spaces that ranges from the distraction-free to the noise-tolerant. Let the students find the space that best fits their preferred style of learning – and socialization. All too often the academic library is a distraction factory, where ubiquitous computer screens, a see-and-be-seen atmosphere and the gratuitous use of devices derails most efforts to deliver an distraction-free nirvana.
Leveraging the need for attention
If what we read is true about the general public’s desire to take control back from their devices and exert their willpower over web time wasters, perhaps there is an opportunity for academic librarians. Despite good intentions it is likely that college students will need help in eliminating those annoying distractions from their daily routines. Offering study rooms may help, but anyone who has visited those areas of the library knows that students sometimes fail to find the peaceful, Zen-like retreat they sought. We’ve got to do more and be better. There’s an entire industry developing just now to help people manage their attention. Look at what Apple is doing. The next iPhone will offer a “Do Not Disturb” feature that allows the owner to escape, as needed, their apps, texts and networks.
Stephen Colbert had some fun recently at the expense of Shiwen Ye, the 16-year-old gold medal winning Chinese swimmer. He said, “You see, Shiwen, she won,” Colbert explained, wondering, “How did she even finish the race? She’s 16. Halfway through, you know she checked her Facebook page.” It’s not quite that bad, but walk through an academic library and see how many screens are locked on to Facebook or YouTube. Sure, there’s a slim chance those students could be engaged in course-related activity, but it’s more likely they’re evading course work. What could we do to help these students regain control over their attention?
One possibility might be to treat attention as a new form of acquired literacy. Perhaps it is not far-fetched to consider that our students, exposed all their lives to devices and environments embedded with constant distraction, would be as poor suited to achieving a state of prolonged attention as they are at conducting effective research or information evaluation. Yet the very act of concentrated attention may be just as critical to research success as choosing the right database or knowing how to formulate a research question. If students constantly give up after a few minutes and settle for the path of least resistance, what chance do they have of advancing their research skills?
Needs more research
If attention is indeed the currency of the future, and those who can focus their attention actually gain a competitive advantage and perhaps a marketable skill, then assisting students to become “attention literate” could be every bit as important to after-college success as being a wise consumer of information. Certainly, both are critical to lifelong learning. For a start, perhaps academic librarians could introduce the concept of attention management in their work with undergraduates. That might lead to the practice of attention-expanding exercises that fit well with other literacy development activities. Then again, if you accept Davidson’s theories that we should simply accept our attention blindness and instead determine how students can best learn in a distracted state, perhaps by working in teams that distribute tasks among a group of collaborators, then that puts an entirely different spin on what sort of attention-based literacy, if any, a future lifelong learner needs to acquire at college. I suspect we’ll be hearing much more about distraction issues.
More research may be needed before we add attention to the growing list of literacies academic librarians seek to transmit to the student body. Then again, perhaps there is new ground here to break in providing assistance to the attention-challenged college student.