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

By Larry Rosen
November 13th, 2012

Learning to live with both internal and external distractions is all about teaching the concept of focus, Rosen writes.

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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6 Responses to “Driven to distraction: How to help wired students learn to focus”

November 14, 2012

This research definitely confirms what teachers have been observing for awhile now…the short attention span of their students and their low ability to attend to tasks at hand. In spite of the many benefits of living in a digital society, the disadvantage of such is also the existence of an ever present temptation to focus on what appears to be relevant and its tremendous effect of distraction while desensitizing young people to the need of focusing on matters of importance.

Additional stimuli inevitably create urgency within the human mind to check on the cause. Both observational studies detailed in this article are biased to prove that students are easily distracted. Although the study of students within their homes does measure ease of distraction, student study methods during “free” time, is neither representative of nor transferable to how the same students might operate within the classroom. Put the same students in a room with ample opportunities for distraction, but give them an assignment with a short time limit and its doubtful that they would access any of the technological mediums.
The same logic holds true for the study about text messages sent to students who were shown the 30 min video. Because the researcher told the students that they had to answer the texts, they primed the students to be distracted. Even if a student did not receive any texts, they were distracted by the possibility. Re-administer the same test, inform the students that they will be tested and emphasize the importance of their score; however, do not require the students to answer the text messages. If you remove the necessity to answer the texts then students are less likely to jeopardize their grade to check their phone.
Technology is not going away, and we certainly need to devise creative ways to engage over-stimulated students; however, the solutions should address the times that distraction matters. A student studying for a test in their home has the time to be distracted and still perform well on their exam whereas a student who is distracted in class cannot rewind the content they zoned out after the fact.

    November 19, 2012

    Thanks to “cnealon” for his/her comments and to the others of you for your thoughts. I do have to disagree though about the interpretation of our research studies. What teachers all over the world are reporting is that their students are highly distractible in class and that is true whether there is an assignment or not. They find, almost universally, that if technology is not allowed in the classroom then the students are worrying about what they will find when they finish class and have precious few minutes to get to their next class. If they have technology in the class they are constantly peeking at it when they should be focusing on an assignment. The lesson to teachers about my in-class study is not about whether it distracts students, but rather about what metacognitive strategies the better students devised to avoid distraction until an appropriate time (when the video was boring or lacked potential test questions). I am sure, from talking to teachers and my own teaching experience, that if you did not require students to answer a text (not from us but from someone they know) then they would not be able to do it. They evidence an almost Pavlovian response to a flash or vibration that indicates a text. I work with my college students on this and they should be older and wiser and better at recognizing the negative impact and even they have trouble doing it even after I share the studies mentioned in the article! In one recent study we took phones away from students at the beginning of a class and found that their anxiety increased dramatically throughout the class until they got their phones back and were able to “check in” with their virtual social world.

    I do agree that studying at home is qualitatively different from paying attention in class where you have a limited time period to finish work. In one relevant study, Laura Bowman’s had one group of student read a textbook chapter and take a test, another was interrupted before reading the chapter with an instant message conversation and then were allowed to read the chapter and take the test. The third group was interrupted during reading and then returned to read and took the test. All three groups did equally well on the test but the interruption groups took longer (with the third group taking the longest) AND were more stressed. It is this stress that technological interruptions provides that concern me and drive me to find ways to help alleviate the negative impact of internal anxiety-driven interruptions.
November 19, 2012

has anyone ever measured the latency in applications. i usually switch apps when i’ve asked one to perform a service (get mail, open a web page, etc.) and there is a delay. is that ever factored into research on multitasking?

This information can also be used to assist students in focusing without technology alsom. The tech Break can become a rest break that can keep students focused in between