Educators are struggling with distracted students. It’s a competition for their attention. It’s time to experiment with different strategies for getting them re-connected.
I was surprised that “Attention is the New Currency” was the most highly read From the Bell Tower column of 2012, according to the rankings provided by Josh Hadro. Though slightly off topic for this column, it struck me as a connected theme to which the readers could relate. And they did. The problem of technology distraction and attention deficiency among our students is clearly an issue of concern to academic librarians—and just about anyone who stands at the front of a classroom full of digitally connected students. The fact that this column in particular resonated with so many librarian educators speaks to some of the challenges we face in helping the 21st century learner become a wise consumer of information. As we struggle to overcome the barriers to connecting with distracted students, we may experiment with strategies that include everything from pleading with them to put away their devices to encouraging their active use and just about anything that falls in between those two polar opposites. The search for effective classroom management and thoughtful pedagogy in an increasingly BYOD world has yet to yield some surefire antidotes for tech-distracted students.
Texting in Class
Our faculty colleagues contend with the student attention deficit problem throughout the course of the semester. How bad can it get? The article “An introduction to multitasking and texting: Prevalence and impact on grades and GPA in marketing” (Clayson, D.E., and Haley, D.A. 2013 Journal of Marketing Education, 35 (1), 26–40) reported a study of 300 marketing majors at two different universities. Texting is a significant distraction for college students. An astounding 98 percent reported texting during class. I guess the other 2 percent were too busy updating their Facebook status to send a text message. Do you sometimes bore students? They’ll be texting. Have you asked students to refrain from texting while you teach? Half the students said they would politely agree to do so and then text anyway. Even though the majority of students said they knew it was wrong to text in class, they also thought they could do it without the teacher knowing. Even the 32 percent who said the teacher probably knew they were texting would continue to do so. Perhaps the most worrisome data indicate that nearly half the students believe they can text and follow the instructor, or that their texting in class would have little impact on their class performance. You know what happens to people who say they can text and drive. Those are probably the same people who say they can text and learn.
In-class texting is just the tip of the digital distraction iceberg. I like how one instructor put it when she said of her students, “Most are intimately engaged with their personal technology, be it an iPhone, iPad, iPod, iBook, what have you, blissfully unaware of either their surroundings or other students. Quite a few are caught up in online shopping at Target, Amazon, Gap. It takes real effort on my part to get some of them to unplug, or at least to minimize whatever distracting screen they’re looking at, and pay attention for the duration of class.” One of the ways that distraction manifests itself is the added work it creates for instructors. Students are emailing to ask for information that was delivered during class, or requesting extra assistance with material they missed while distracted. Educators find they are most disturbed with the impact distracting technology has on student grades. The evidence tells us that students do more poorly when distracted. In one experiment, some students received eight text messages during a class, while another group received only four texts. Students receiving more texts did worse in an exam than those receiving fewer texts. Those who answered during the showing of an important video segment received a full grade lower on an exam. Students who responded instantly to a text message also did more poorly than students who waited a few minutes to respond. In this same study, students who checked Facedbook just once during a fifteen-minute study session received lower grades. Knowing what we do about the impact of distractions on students, we need in-class strategies to help them regain their attention spans.
How about a Break
Just asking students to put their devices away is too weak. The draw of their distractions is powerful. No one knows for sure how to deal with this, but Larry Rosen has a suggestion for us. A professor of psychology at California State University and an expert on the psychology of technology, he is author of the book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us. His research has uncovered many of the negative impacts technology has on distracted students. Rosen believes the solution lies with helping students to focus their attention, as opposed to simply trying to get them to do without their distractions. He believes we can help students to better understand when to stay focused, which also allows them to put off their distractions until a more appropriate time. The recommended technique is actually quite simple. It revolves around that fifteen-minute time period in which students will check Facebook or for new texts at least once. Here is how he describes it:
A tech break starts with the teacher asking all students to check their texts, the web, Facebook, whatever, for a minute, and then turn the device on silent and place it upside down on the desk in plain sight and “focus” on classroom work for 15 minutes. The upside-down device prohibits external distractions from vibrations and flashing alerts, and provides a signal to the brain that there is no need to be internally distracted, because an opportunity to “check in” will be coming soon. At the end of the 15-minute focus time, the teacher declares a tech break, and the students take another minute to check in with their virtual worlds, followed by more focus times and more tech breaks. The trick is to gradually lengthen the time between tech breaks, to teach students how to focus for longer periods of time without being distracted.
Worth a Try
The idea of giving students a tech break seems like one worth trying, although to me it would seem awkward, during a library instruction session, to just stop the proceedings in order to instruct the students to “check in.” It’s unclear if the technique can work in a single session, given its design for a longer series of encounters with students. If the point of each tech break is to contribute to a longer-term strategy to get students to progressively extend the time they spend focusing, then a one-time use is clearly outside of that context. I think it might be possible at the beginning of a class to instruct the students to put their devices down, as described, and then let them know when the tech break is going to happen and that it will be a one-minute break. Knowing they’ll get a break may encourage the students to stay focused. Before implementation, it would perhaps be constructive to connect with the instructor to share the plan and see how it might fit with other methods being employed in the classroom.
Rosen believes that technology and digital connections will only grow and increase their distraction power. Academic librarians may want to start thinking about taking a tech break during their instruction activity as a way to minimize distraction and increase attentiveness. If distracted students leave you feeling frustrated, this may be one simple step on the path to helping them become more focused learners.