Dealing With Digital Distractions in the Classroom

cell phone in classroom

Dealing With Digital Distractions in the Classroom

Our world is becoming increasingly dependent on communications technology. We send text messages to our friends; we book appointments online; and we use computer applications on our smartphones to read the daily newspaper or check the arrival time for the next bus.

There’s no turning back from this reliance on technology, but, given its widespread use, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s not easy to put our devices away. This tendency is bleeding into our schools. Digital distractions are becoming prevalent in classrooms, which can interfere with learning.

Technology can be a wonderful tool to enhance learning, useful in creating an engaging, individualized learning experience. However, it can also be a temptation to wander from the subject at hand.

Data on Distractions

A 2015 survey conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln sheds some light on student susceptibility to digital devices. Major findings from the survey, which polled students in 26 states, include:

  • 20 per cent of class time is spent using digital devices for unrelated activities;
  • 34 per cent of students check their digital devices more than 10 times a day;
  • Digital activities unrelated to their studies includes texting (87 per cent), email (76 per cent), checking the time (75 per cent) and social networking (70 per cent);
  • 11 per cent said found it impossible to detach themselves from their devices;
  • 63 per cent of students said they used digital devices to stay connected or to avoid boredom;
  • 80.5 per cent of the students admitted that they missed instruction while using their devices


cell phone when studying

Tackling Distractions

Age appropriate solutions:

Any approach to digital distractions must be tailored to the institution. Banning the devices outright isn’t practical in most situations, and students often experience anxiety when they don’t have their smartphones available, which is a distraction itself. The rules in a K-12 school will differ from those at a university, based on the maturity of the students, motivation, attention span, level of personal responsibility and the amount of supervision they require. In K-12 schools, for instance, by using the school’s common wireless network, it is possible to use programs that can restrict student access to sites other than those necessary for class. At a university, incentives — snacks, for example –for putting away devices might be more effective.

Multi-tasking demystified:

One of the survey’s distressing findings is that 30 per cent of respondents believe they can use their digital devices without becoming distracted from the material at hand. Research has shown that multi-tasking is a myth. People can really focus on only one thing at a time; what is often considered multi-tasking is actually a rapid shift between two tasks. It often causes you to miss key bits of information while you are switching from one to the other. Even if you do hear the necessary information, it’s generally not synthesized with deeper knowledge and embedded in your brain. Educators may want to offer a lesson on multi-tasking and concentration that engages the students in an illustrative activityto drive the point home.

Digital etiquette:

Create a set of rules around using smartphones during class and devote a class session to explaining them. The concept of digital citizenship originated in K-12 settings, where students were rewarded for learning to use technology appropriately in a classroom setting by gaining more freedom to use their devices. In a university setting, you can discuss the proper etiquette for cellphone use, emphasizing that these behaviours will also serve them well in the workplace where there will be expectations about behaving with courtesy and consideration for colleagues and clients.

Put the focus on focusing:

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, tells KQED News in California that students need to learn to focus while their pre-frontal cortexes continue to develop. This is the part of the brain that not only controls attention, but manages the ability to control one’s emotions and feel empathy.

“The more you can concentrate the better you’ll do on anything, because whatever talent you have, you can’t apply it if you are distracted,” he says. “This ability is more important than IQ or the socio economic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success and health.”

This may mean teaching students attention-oriented skills such as mindfulness or lecturing in shorter stretches of 30 minutes or so before taking a break. It also may mean incorporating other approaches into your teaching – the straight lecture can be interspersed with group activities, for example. Shake things up to make things more interesting. Bored students are not engaged students.

Don’t post it all:

Give students a reason for coming to class and paying attention. If you put all of the lectures and class notes online, there’s no incentive to attend scheduled class sessions. An outline can suffice. Also, lecture on material that the students won’t find in their texts, making it clear that the lecture material will be included on exams.

Digital technology is here to stay, but with creativity and determination, educators can maintain classrooms as places of learning, rather than turning into gaming or social media centres.