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Driven to distraction: How to help wired students learn to focus

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A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project report surveyed 2,462 middle and high school Advanced Placement and national writing project teachers and concluded that: “Overwhelming majorities agree with the assertions that today’s digital technologies are creating an easily distracted generation with short attention spans, and today’s students are too ‘plugged in’ and need more time away from their digital technologies.”

Two-thirds of the respondents agree with the notion that today’s digital technologies do more to distract students than to help them academically.

Mind you, we are talking about teachers who typically teach the best and brightest students and not those who we would generally think of as highly distractible.

Recently my research team observed 263 middle school, high school, and university students studying for a mere 15 minutes in their homes. We were interested in whether students could maintain focus and, if not, what might be distracting them. Every minute we noted exactly what they were doing, whether they were studying, if they were texting or listening to music or watching television in the background, and if they had a computer screen in front of them and what websites were being visited.

The results were startling, considering that the students knew we were watching them and most likely assumed we were observing how well they were able to study. First, these students were only able to stay on task for an average of three to five minutes before losing their focus. Universally, their distractions came from technology, including: (1) having more devices available in their studying environment such as iPods, laptops, and smart phones; (2) texting; and (3) accessing Facebook.

Other researchers have found similar attention spans among computer programmers and medical students, and in those studies technology provided the major sources of distraction.

We also looked at whether these distractors might predict who was a better student in general. Not surprisingly, those who stayed on task longer and had well-developed study strategies were better students. The worst students were those who consumed more media each day and had a preference for switching back and forth between several tasks at the same time.

One additional result stunned us: If the students checked Facebook just once during the 15-minute study period, they had a lower grade-point average. It didn’t matter how many times they looked at Facebook; once was enough. Not only did social media negatively impact their temporary focus and attention, but it ultimately impacted their entire school performance.

So, what was going on with these students? We have asked thousands of students this exact question, and they tell us that when alerted by a beep, a vibration, or a flashing image, they feel compelled or drawn to attend to that stimulus. However, they also tell us that even without the sensory intrusions they are constantly being distracted internally by thoughts such as, “I wonder if anyone commented on my Facebook post,” or “I wonder if my friend responded to the text message I sent five minutes ago”—or even “I wonder what interesting new YouTube videos my friends have liked.”

Three-fourths of teens and young adults check their devices every 15 minutes or less and if not allowed to do so get highly anxious. And anxiety inhibits learning.

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