4 Ways to Increase Student Attention in the Age of Distraction

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MIT professor Sherry Turkle tells a story of teaching a class on memoir, during which students talked openly about the intimate details of their lives, meanwhile their classmates texted under their desks.

“We were losing the sense of this class as a conversation, and that is the value of what we’re there to do together,” she remembers.

Turkle, author of Alone Together, is not alone in her concern about where technology has the potential to take the classroom—and society—should we let it.

On this blog, I’ve written about how when left to their own devices (quite literally), some students will check their phones excessively during class (18 times in 50 minutes, for example), but I’ve also written about how and why professors should teach with the very technologies that are distracting their students, like smartphones, Facebook and Twitter.

Technology: An Attention Thief

Technology, of course, is the future. Hardly anyone can dispute that. And as the future, to ignore it as a tool for teaching seems irresponsible at best. Nonetheless, its downsides are increasingly well-documented.

Teachers, for example, are seeing evidence that tech is “hampering [students'] attention spans…,” according to a recent New York Times article that also quoted a teacher who asked, “Are we contributing to this?” in response to her and her colleagues’ practice of adapting lessons to account for shorter attention spans.

In June, a Newsweek piece, “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?” cited research done at Missouri State University that tracked the real-time web habits of 216 kids, including 65 who showed signs of depression. “The depressed kids were the most intense web users, chewing up more hours of e-mail, chat, videogames, and file sharing. They also opened, closed, and switched browser windows more frequently.”

Depression and other psychological fallouts from constant tech use are, for the most part, beyond the scope of the university professor to address. But, it’s in the cause (or the symptom?) of the depression—the distraction of dozens of browser windows opening and closing, for example—that educators have an opportunity.

If sustained attention is what’s needed to hold a conversation, write an essay, and commit new learning to long-term memory, then how can educators work on increasing students’ capacities for paying attention without altogether dismissing the benefits of teaching with technology?

Turkle said that some professors are starting to ask students to deposit their phones in baskets before entering the classroom. But, there are other, perhaps more organized, ways to challenge the effects of distraction in the classroom.

4 Ways to Increase Student Attention

#1: Practice contemplative pedagogy

According to the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, the teaching methods of contemplative pedagogy help cultivate deepened awareness, concentration and insight. Some of the recommended practices, which research says can offset the distractions of multitasking and multimedia, include:

In-Class Contemplation, or taking a few minutes to focus on the task at hand. This might mean turning off the lights at the start of class and instructing students to take slow, deep breaths, relax and stretch their bodies, and “just let go” and be silent for a few minutes.

Journaling, when done at the beginning of class can help students determine what they have to offer to the class’s upcoming discussion, or when done in the middle can have a reflective and calming effect after intense debate and discussion. One professor has his students answer the question, “What matters here?” because it prompts them to take ownership of their learning.

Mindful e-mail involves acquainting students with the concept of mindfulness, having them observe without judgement their own e-mail behaviors, engaging them in honest and broad discussions on the application of mindfulness to an ubiquitous technology, and then asking them to craft and share a set of personal guidelines for mindful e-mail use.

Find many more ideas for incorporating contemplative pedagogy here and here.

#2: Do what’s always worked

Just because students have “grown up digital” doesn’t mean they learn differently than previous generations. So, apply traditional teaching approaches using new technologies. For example, ask students to give their undivided attention to one text (electronic or physical) at a time, and regardless of if your class is online or in person, build in ways for students to practice retrieval and spaced repetition. Each of these continue to be research-proven methods for learning and remembering.

#3: Give tech-free challenges. 

Take a page from high school teacher Stephen Womack’s lesson plans, and challenge your students to go without technology for an entire week. Some will blow it off, but others will accept it as a personal mission, like a few of Womcak’s students did. Womack says the exercise helps students be more conscious of the role technology plays in their lives, and in particular, the ways it enhances and diminishes their quality of life.

#4: Turn over your syllabus to your students 

Duke professor and author of Now You See It Cathy Davidson teaches a class called “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” in which she gives students the opportunity to teach the class using the syllabus she’s already prepared, or adapting it to suit their own interests. The purpose, she writes in the syllabus, is to “explore many different, quirky, eccentric, and exceptional models of the mind in order to force ourselves to think, together, about what models work best our digital, interactive, and collaborative age.” The outcome is students who think deeply about the course content and are more engaged during class.

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