Managing the Distractions

I came across something like this “unhelpful high school teacher” meme the other day and it got me thinking about the distracted landscape our students occupy.


All too often the opinions you encounter on the web and in other parts of everyday life are one-sided; normally the work of someone with an axe to grind; someone wishing to provide just one side of a rather complicated issue and this is no exception. There are very valid reasons why educators have to be skeptical about the unrestricted use of electronic devices such as laptops and tablets in class.

In my previous job my office was located on campus at a fairly large university. It gave ample opportunity to view the electronic habits of typical students and was a never-ending source of amazement—both the good and the bad kinds.

One incident in particular stands out. I wished to confer briefly with a colleague who was, at the time, teaching a large class (around 160+ senior education students) in one of two large lecture theatres located in the basement of the building we both inhabited. I decided to just head over to the class and chat with him before it started. Unfortunately, as is often the case, I was briefly distracted, and, by the time I arrived at the door the class had already started. Out of curiosity I looked in. My vantage point was from the centre back and, as the lecture theatre slopes toward the front, I had an excellent view of exactly what the students were doing.

Almost all of them had either a laptop or a tablet device open and active. What was interesting was the fact that the majority of the students were not just taking notes on the machines but also had a web browser open. Well over half of the students would periodically switch from the note taking application (typically a word processor) to the browser. The browsers had the usual suspects, of course (Facebook, Twitter and other social media applications) but a surprising number of students were also shopping online during class time. I’d estimate now that somewhere between 10 and 20 of the approximately 150 students were doing this! Only a very small fraction—I’d estimate now around 20 to 25%–seemed to be totally focused on the lecture; at least as evidenced by their keeping the notes application open throughout the five minutes or so I was watching.


I recall the moment quite well as it was one of those times when something became quite clear to me; a time that has sparked a considerable number of subsequent informal observations. Right then and there I decided to also take a look at the other lecture theatre. This one had a 2nd semester calculus class going on and, unlike the former one, was one in which electronic devices were not that well suited to taking notes (unless, of course, you had a touch screen or some stylus such as a Wacom device in which you could render back handwriting. After all, typing calculus notes is not something anyone can do on the fly!). Guess what? Same thing! Once again I saw a sea of laptops and tablets. Not quite so many, of course—I’d estimate around 50% of the students had them open as opposed to over 90% as was the case in the education class. Once again, though, the screens were dominated by not just social media but also online shopping!

Just a thought—maybe someone should run their own set of observations and verify this. At any rate, this short anecdote lends a bit (yes, I know “piling on the anecdotes” is a very flawed form of research) of credibility to the notion that we all have of how distracted our students really are.


Which brings us to the point: as educators it is in our best interests, and those of our students, if we find effective ways of managing the many distractions that electronic gadgets bring to our classrooms. While it is certainly true that electronic devices hold incredible promise for all aspects of education it must also be acknowledged that the devices are equally effective at pulling students away from the tasks that should be at hand. The same conduit that brings research, information and activities right to the students’ foregrounds is equally adept at bringing in distractions such as off-topic interactions, irrelevant information and other distractions, particularly games that have nothing to do with learning.

Blocking unrelated content is a strategy that will never work. Go ahead and block Facebook at the Wi-Fi router. The students will hardly be slowed at all. Some will switch back to getting it through their phones, which you cannot block. Others will switch to a different social media platform—new ones pop up almost weekly, and still others will just connect through a proxy server which will just circumvent the router and firewall rules. It’s a losing game of cat and mouse.

Blocking the use of electronic devices is equally counterproductive. First of all, it drags instruction back to the 19th century—and we cannot afford to do that. More importantly, though, the whole practice of “blocking” or “banning” is anathema to the whole idea of schools as places of learning.

So what, then? What is the magic bullet? As expected, because it’s nearly always the case, there is no one simple solution. There are, however general strategies that can be applied and which will be found effective. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make a personal contact with the students: When students turn to the web browser they are turning away from you, the instructor. The less personal you are to the students the more they will do this.
  • Communicate your values clearly: Typically around 80% of people will respect your wishes so make sure they know what your wishes are. Make it clear to the students that you do value the use of electronic equipment but that they must also make the best use of their class time. To do this they should minimize distractions and, in particular, save the social networking and shopping for some other time. It’s also worth noting that of the remaining 20%, around three-quarters of them can be convinced to follow along too especially if you ensure that you move around the room to make it apparent that you are checking to see If students are engaged. It should also be noted that the small remainder—around 5% of the total—will do what they please regardless of what you do and you would be well advised that this small group may be regarded as “beyond the point of diminishing returns” so long as they do not distract others with their off-topic pursuits.
  • Find ways to leverage the potentially-distracting technology: You can always find ways to put the devices to some good use. Examples include: (1) getting the students to install “clicker” applications and build in “instant response” activities to your classes (2) provide electronic versions of partial notes (sometimes referred to as “gap notes”) that the students can complete online if they have annotation software (3) make effective use of simulations in class time if appropriate (4) use appropriate application software for in-class activities.



12 thoughts on “Managing the Distractions

  1. Great summary, Maurice! I have no solutions to offer. As a teacher (most recently giving a lecture on PKI at a university) my very pragmatic solution was: I don’t care. These students were grown-up people, most of them studying while working. So having to read you colleagues’ e-mail while technically attending the lecture in your spare time was understandable. Facebook for sure was not.
    But as for the effects there are studies that prove that “multi-tasking” is detrimental. In The Shallows – What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains Nicholas Carr quotes research on students who were allowed to surf the net for researching material related to the lecture. Even if they didn’t cheat and stayed on-topic results showed that student who only followed the lecture “linearly”, without looking at any oh-so-helpful multi-media content, animated physics video etc. – they could remember more or the content. I guess this is due to a narrowing of the channel (just listening, just reading plain old text) triggering those processes in our brains that really help commitment to long-term memory. Less information per time makes us more active.

    1. Couple to that the various effects and indicators such as the Downing effect or the Dunning-Kruger effect that, collectively, show us that we are not terribly good judges of our own strengths and weaknesses. Many students will say, “I’m a multi-tasker!” and just assume that they are god at handling many things at a time. The claim, though, is not only baseless–worse again it’s probably totally inaccurate!

  2. You’ve struck upon something that I have experienced and am experiencing with increasing frequency. Your observation that time spent ‘messing around’ appears to depend to some extent on the audience. I’m currently teaching one course to departmental majors and another to a large group of students from Social Work. The majors are pretty good about paying close attention … since I have not assigned a text for the class and because I have told them, many times, that what goes on in lecture is what will be emphasized on the written examinations. The nonmajors in Social Work are pretty horrible! It’s clear that many are checking FB with their phones and I’m never entirely sure what those with laptops and tablets are doing – but I can guess. In the past I have made it my policy that no phones we allowed in class … but one cannot make such a rule concerning other technologies, for many students use these to take notes and so on. But … as you point out … many use them irresponsibly. Or do they? Can I/Should I forbid surfing? Is that my right? Isn’t it their right to do so? I don’t know what’s right in this instance. Your recommendations are logical … but perhaps difficult to implement all-the-time. We, as faculty, find ourselves competing with lots of other sources of ‘input’ these days. The times have changed and that means that the classroom isn’t what is used to be. Who blinks first? Me? Or the students? Who should blink? You tell me. Answers are difficult, to be sure. D

    1. Sadly, there it remains. As I noted on Elke’s blog yesterday, far too often the certainty and closure we seek is just not immediately attainable. I draw strength, though, from something I read fairly recently Consider “Standards” These are things we wish to attain. While we would like to get there, however, we should content ourselves in knowing that for so many, including ourselves, the standard may remain an ideal that we will have to strive for all of our lives without ever reaching it. The best example, and the one I read, was the Four Minute Mile–itself the gold standard for any runner. While many runners will work hard, it’s true that they may never meet it. It still, however, serves its purpose. So too with many other standards, including both academic standards as well as standards of conduct. So that leaves us in that awkward place where we know that there’s stuff going on that we don’t want to see but we aren’t empowered to completely deal with it altogether.

      1. Haven’t you then outlined a recipe for FRUSTRATION. Or, are you telling me that frustration is a good thing in that it provides motivation to keep going? D

      2. Door #2 Dave 🙂 I think the only place we can be is somewhere between frustration and acceptance. I admit, too, that’s the way I see most things. The skill in all of it is to not let it go too far either way. In the end the goal is to get the young people to learn and those things can be either a help or a hindrance…or both. But thay’re not going away.

  3. Eric Nippard

    Hi Maurice. Perhaps the issue is not with the students at all. You actually hit on the problem with your quotation “Blocking the use of electronic devices is equally counterproductive. First of all, it drags instruction back to the 19th century”. Maybe it has nothing at all to do with the electronic devices and everything to do with the “19th century” of delivery in the “lecture theatre”? This type of delivery method implies a Sage standing in front of the masses offering their wisdom. With the advent of instant access to information, data, etc., why would the students NOT want to tune out when someone is droning on for an hour? The solution to this dilemma is to create an atmosphere of learning in the “lecture” hall where student want to engage with the material to get deeper meaning. That deeper meaning is not going to come as exemplified by the 20% – 25% of those “focused” on the lecture and dutifully taking notes.

    1. What you are describing is an admirable ideal and one that should be uppermost in everyone’s minds as far as I;m concerned. As an aside, take a quick peek at the reply I just posted, above, to Dave’s comment regarding standards and that always present divide between the reality and it. The realistic goal, as I see it,is to lessen that distance, not to totally eliminate it–something I feel is unattainable.
      All that said, you might want to take a peek at my (admittedly TL;DR ) post entitled Learning Resources, where’s the Real commons where I did try to explore your suggestion in a little more depth. As you know I can be a little long-winded and this is one of those situations 🙂

  4. Your suggestions are spot on! I think the first one is the most important: to realize that students are turning away from the instructor…but the other two are great as well.

  5. I haven’t been in a university lecture hall since the pre-cell phone era, and laptops were still too large with inefficient batteries to set up in the old lecture theatres. Students mostly slept at their desks. It’s good to have a heads up when thinking about going back for more study, as I think this new atmosphere might draw me a little closer to sharing Dave’s FRUSTRATION.

    I’ve encountered my own personal feelings of annoyance in accepting someone’s request to give them social time, to sit and listen to their words and carefully try to listen, and then watch them Facebook scroll as I try to offer a careful and considered response. There’s really no need for me to have interrupted my own priorities for me to be there. This hasn’t happened often to me, but I haven’t enjoyed it when it has.

    The art of conversation is probably in no greater danger of being lost today as it was a generation or a century ago, but electronic devices do act as flags to our lost time and disconnect. I don’t think the answer is learning to do cart wheels and making a side show out of a lecture theatre, but the stats on engagement help to illuminate what is happening in our connection-making processes. It also suggests that an alarmingly small number of people are curiosity-motivated.

    Thought provoking!

    1. The one message I would like people to understand is that we do not multi-task well if the tasks involve the pre-frontal cortex. Sure we can walk, breathe, chew gum and talk all at once, but we cannot follow a complex explanation of quantum theory while at the same time commenting online about the latest episode of ‘Game of Thrones.”
      The only solution, when we need to do both, is to make appropriate time to do them separately.

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