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Technology and the distracted mind, how to support #engagement

distracted mind
Distracted Mind, a story on NPR

In Phi Delta Kappan, Larry Rosen, a research psychologist from Cal State University, writes about the distracted student in today’s world.  The article, The Distracted Student: enhancing its focus and attention, outlines some of the research that suggests students’ pervasive use of technology leads to significant levels of distraction.  The impact can be great enough to negatively influence a student’s ability to learn.  These statistics are certainly worth paying attention to if you teach secondary or higher education (page 8 & 9).

  • college students unlock their phones 50 times a day, using them for close to 4.5 hours out of every 24-hour cycle.
  • Teenagers are almost always attempting to multitask, even when they know full well that they cannot do so effectively.
  • When teenagers have their phones taken away, they become highly anxious.
  • The average adolescent or young adult finds it difficult to study for 15 minutes at a time; when forced to do so, they will spend at least five  of those minutes in a state of distraction.

In summary, students, and probably adults, are so addicted to their technology that they become distracted from focusing on a task at least 25% of the time.

This is an interesting finding from the research:

Compared to their predecessors, today’s students are likely take significantly longer to complete school work and to feel much more stressed as they do so. (page 10)

Most of the interruptions, which are common with adults as well, are due to texts, phone calls, IMs, and notifications.  These technology events interrupt people every 3-5 minutes on average.  Recovery to get back on task can take on average 15-20 minutes.  While technology has added positively to our ability to learn 24-7, it isn’t hard to see how technology negatively impacts our focus and productivity.

The authors report on another study devoted to understanding how students engage in work.  They found that on average students spend about 10 minutes out of every 15 minutes actually focused on doing work.  The other 5 minutes were spent being distracted by their technology.  They cycle repeats itself over and over resulting in it taking much longer to complete a task.  All of this distraction, loss of focus, and longer times to complete tasks creates significant amounts of distraction in our young people.

The technology addiction leads to greater levels of anxiety and inability to sleep restfully.  They recommend the following:

  1. Make sure students understand that their brains need an occasional “reset” (time away from the influence technology has on their neurochemistry)
  2. Help students build stamina for studying with tech breaks.
  3. Advise students to treat sleep as sacred (time away from technology an hour before sleep and during sleep)
  4. Advise students to turn off their notifications and alerts so the phone doesn’t continuously interfere with attention.

As educators, we need to integrate technology into our teaching and learning in meaningful and useful ways, but we also have a responsibility to help students learn and use strategies to disconnect from technology, thereby preventing addiction to its influence.

In the same issue of Phi Delta Kappan, Frieda Parker and her colleagues wrote about ways to engage students in the classroom.  Their article, To engage students, give them meaningful choices in the classroom, explores two teachers who use two different approaches to giving students choice.  One approach successfully engages students, while the other doesn’t.  The authors write:

Giving students real choices in the classroom–having to do with the material they study, the assignments they complete, the peers with whom they work, and so on–can boost their engagement and motivation.  (page 37)

They suggest that good lesson design keeps the following three things in mind: (1) autonomy; (2) competence; and (3) relatedness.  Autonomy has to do with structuring lessons that have specific meaning and relevance for students.  When successfully designed, these types of lessons are much easier for students to make personal connections to.  Competence is about designing lessons in which students have a really good understanding of what to do to be successful.  The choices have to be narrow enough that students understand how to make choices that support effective learning.  Relatedness ties to our human need to connect with others.  Designing lessons that support peer-to-peer learning are more likely to engage students.  Giving them choices to work in different configurations can positively influence their ability to engage and learn.

So while technology can be distracting and diminish a student’s ability to focus, there are non-technological strategies teachers can use to design for a higher level of student engagement.  Lesson design needs to be mindful of our understanding of neuroscience of learning.


1 comment on “Technology and the distracted mind, how to support #engagement

  1. Pingback: Read on a digital device or read in print, which is preferable? | Center for Teaching

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