April 23, 2018

Time For a Classroom Tech Break | From the Bell Tower

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.

Instructor Frustration

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.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. I’d just buy an EMP gun and shoot each person at the start of class. Or get some TSA in there and pat each person down, then take their phone and make them pay big bucks to get it back. Or just smash it.

  2. While I recognize that this article addresses primarily college level young people and the issues in the college classroom, and that these students are supposed to be self motivated to be in school and to learn, I have seen that approach – personal responsibility for individual learning – applied fairly effectively in secondary school classes as well. Point being, it’s not necessarily just a student problem, but I think it’s more of a teaching problem.
    Being an adult educator myself, I understand all about readiness to learn, etc., and what this attention span issue says to me is that teachers may be the problem more than students. Most teachers understand no other way to teach than “the lecture.” Trying to make concessions within a class simply communicates to students that their “need” to take a “minute to check in with their virtual worlds” is far more important than the subject of the class. I think it’s also an admission that “I’m such a poor teacher that I surrender to you that your personal issues and interests are more important than learning what I have to teach.”
    Obviously, the lecture is outmoded and ineffective for learners who have short attention spans – a product of the Millennial Generation and technology. Teachers MUST engage learners in the learning process in whatever way their subject lends itself. Games are probably the best way to engage millennials in learning, so teaching may need to take on the characteristics of games – like Lumosity.

  3. This is a little frightening (even if it works). It honestly sounds like some sort of therapy for a disease. It also sounds incredbly infantile, almost like potty training! Should teachers really have that obligation? Sometimes people just have to find out there are consequences.

    I fear it just pushes the problem forward again, not only of technology and inability to focus, but the general problem of a culture that has turned the indefinite prolongation of childhood into almost a moral obligation. Nowhere (in this column or elsewhere) do I see any obligation placed on the students, just a lot of hand-wringing about how lectures (or what have you) aren’t sufficiently entertaining. Next push forward is releasing into the workforce droves of graduates who feel that their employers (such as myself) are somehow at fault by not recognizing how “different” they are from their predecessors, their “specialness,” and by our failure to offer them employment that they find sufficiently entertaining to hold their attention. Never mind the paycheck–that’s viewed more or less like the allowance from Mom and Dad; that’s for showing up. Want anything more out of me? Don’t bore me too much and I’ll consider it. I guess it’s our job to fire them from their first job or two; heaven knows there haven’t been any consequences prior to that point. Failing a class or two might not seem so bad after all…

    • I wholeheartedly agree with you. At some point people need to understand that not everything is entertaining. There are worthwhile activities that do not ping, vibrate, or update. That there is a responsibility on the part of the student to bring something to the table, not the least of which is his or her focus. I have taken several groups of students on week-long trips to Washington, DC. They are not allowed to bring electronics of any kind. They fight it, but by Tuesday they understand how much they would be missing if they were walking around with their eyes glued to a device.

    • annette nielsen says:

      Sense of mutual obligation…AMEN. Almost an archiac philosophy in this era of “its all about the individual”. If I start on this I will never stop! thank you aa915.

  4. StevenB says:

    Thanks for these comments. My initial reaction to the suggestion of a classroom tech break for college students struck me as a bit odd too, and I asked if it made sense to even try. I suppose it’s reasonable to question it, but on the other hand why not give it a try. If it works, great. If not, move on to other strategies. Keep in mind, if you read the original piece, a short tech break is a piece of a longer term strategy to help students improve their ability to focus for longer periods of time. In that respect, you as an educator, are trying to help students to become more effective learner.

  5. My brother teaches writing at a community college and he handles this situation very differently. He gives them a warning at the beginning of the semester that anyone texting in class will result in the whole class getting a pop quiz or writing assignments becoming longer (two page essays become three). It harkens from a motto he heard from a friend who went through basic training: “When the mind fails, the body suffers. Whose body? Everybody.” From there, he lets the students police each other and themselves. It works like a charm.

    Now, this might not serve well for one or two shot instruction sessions for academic librarians. A tech break might be a good way to deal with this kind of distraction on a short term basis. I’ll have to pass it along to my brother and see what he thinks.