Dealing With Digitally Distracted Students

There you are teaching your library instruction session to a class of undergrads. You see a student, head down, looking at the floor. No need to ask what that student is up to. You know.

What do you do next? More importantly, what could you do do prevent it before it happens?

Student distraction is a significant problem. Well, a problem perhaps for the librarian-educator. Not so much for the students who have some interesting opinions about their use of the devices that lead to distraction. A new study sheds some light on the degree to which electronic distraction is happening, and it may encourage Blended Librarians to consider how to use their skills to keep students focused on learning, participating, discussing, and achieving engagement with the class.

A study published in the Journal of Media Education titled “Digital Distractions in the Classrom” reported that students spend a fifth of their time in class doing things on their devices that have nothing to do with their school work.The research was undertaken by Associate Professor Barney McCoy, who teaches multimedia and news courses at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Two years ago McCoy ran a similar study that found similar results, but now the level of distraction has worsened.The number of students who report using a digital device 10 times or more in a class increased in 2015 and the number of students who reported never using a digital device – just three percent of all students – decreased since 2013.

You can read the article for all the disturbing details or scan this summary if you are short on time. It’s clear students want to have access to their devices. A whopping 90% said that devices should not be banned from classrooms. Why? Students feel like they need to stay connected. Texting is the number one activity of distracted students. Others say they are bored and just fall back on their devices to relieve the boredom – and faculty certainly have found students doing some weird things on their devices when they are supposed to be paying attention in class. No doubt, many students are just plain addicted to checking their devices, and many educators can suffer from the same impulses when we are in meetings, conference presentations, webinars, etc.

So what can you do to cope with digital device distraction when you teach? Should you just tell students to put away the phones, laptops, etc. for the next 60 minutes? I’ve tried asking the instructor to sit in the back of the room and to monitor activity to make sure students are paying attention, but I can’t say that’s how I really want the instructor to be engaged with the session. I want the instructor to be paying attention to me as well and to interject their ideas in order to connect library learning back to the course content.

I’ve tried other strategies. For example, the “tech break”, which I wrote more about in Library Journal column. It’s easy enough to try. At the start of a class I might say “How about if everyone takes a minute to check their phone for messages or finish a text and then please put them down – and there will be another opportunity to check again”. That may sound a bit like I’m encouraging digital distraction, but according to the research on this, it can help students to get that last device check out of their systems before settling into some learning.

But then you also need to look for opportunities to allow students to use their devices. So I might have them look up something on their phones using the library’s responsive mobile website. For example, I might ask them to search for a book in our catalog or identify the recommended database for their research assignment. And since my instruction usually involves an activity, if I see students finishing up I’ll usually suggest that students should take that quick tech break to check their phones – while waiting for everyone to finish. These approaches don’t always work and sometimes I find myself reminding a distracted student to mentally re-engage with the class.

There’s no doubt that faculty are trying lots of different strategies to connect with distracted students and to get them engaged as learners.There’s also no doubt the distraction problem will grow as students bring more sophisticated digital devices to campus. What levels of distraction have you encountered and what techniques and strategies have you used to counter digital distraction?

One thought on “Dealing With Digitally Distracted Students

  1. I wonder how much of a problem this really is when it comes to actual learning. Considering that we focus/concentrate in short bursts, perhaps mobile device use can actually serve as a “re-focuser”? Now that young students are so desperately attached to their devices, I don’t object to them using them anymore because I don’t know how it FEELS (as a person) to be “unconnected” – I was raised to value independence. As I decided not to object a while ago, I have been taking particular notice of the work that students do in my sessions, & I find that they are doing good learning AND staying connected with the outside world through their devices. Having shared this personal experience, I must say that I haven’t been keeping up with the research in this area. Sandra