Unproductive Student Behaviors- TECHNOLOGY DISTRACTIONS

The problem:   Unknown-1


My response: images

Today’s post on technology distractions in the classroom is the fourth in a series of entries on unproductive student behaviors. It’s depressing to see students making poor decisions about learning.  They don’t come to class, or come unprepared. Or perhaps worse, they distract themselves and others by texting or surfing the web.

Many teachers try to prevent negative learning behaviors through a variety of course policies that punish the offenses. Most syllabi include a statement about cell phones and technology along these lines: Please set your phone to silent mode and put it away at the start of class. Similar requests are made on airplanes, in movie theaters, and doctors’ offices. Yet, phones frequently ring audibly during concerts, patrons text during films, and students text during class.

What can or should be done about technology distractions in the classroom?

I’ll admit this is an ongoing issue in my classes. Unfortunately I am not alone according to a 2013 article from Inside HigherEd http://bit.ly/studenttxt. My early attempts to squelch texting focused on stating my expectations and reasoning in the syllabus:

In order to facilitate a positive learning environment please set your phone to silent mode and put it away. It’s distracting to me, and to other students if you are texting, or emailing, or on Facebook, etc. during class. I’ll do my best to make class time engaging, to minimize the temptation of those distractions. Let’s respect the learning environment and each other.

This was paired one or more practices: giving the “evil eye” to a student I noticed texting during class; making general announcements that phones should be away; confronting texters/Facebookers as I circulated through the room during problem solving; attempting a bit of humor.


Unfortunately, policy and circulating the room don’t appear to make much difference. Students are attached to their phones and FOMO (fear of missing out) means their phones are rarely turned off or even put out of sight/reach.

The policy suggestions in the comments to the Inside HigherEd piece range from harshly punitive (adding pages to term papers or course grade reductions for repeated infractions) to “I don’t care if students text.” A punitive policy isn’t my style. I don’t want to “ban all screens.” What I want is for students to willingly put their phones away to give full attention to what we are doing in class. Fortunately, I did find some strategies that fit with my philosophy of teaching:

Intentional / Scheduled Technology Breaks

In 2013, NY created specific rest areas as “text stops” in the attempt to reduce the incidence of texting while driving. I was not able to find any data on the program’s usage or changes in the texting while driving statistics since the program was started. But the idea intrigues me.

What if I asked students to abstain from their devices for a fixed interval, like 30 minutes? The interval could be something we negotiate when the policy is developed. If the class period was structured with these breaks, students might be more willing to honor the policy. And over time, they may reach the conclusion I really want them to discover: working without distraction is more effective.

Engage Students in Coursework Using their Devices

This idea stems less from “if you can’t beat’em, join’em” than from realizing students have access to the world at their fingertips. Why aren’t I leveraging that in my classroom? Learning how to sift out the chaff to find high quality, vetted information is a valuable skill. In tweeting, the ability to express cogent ideas in 140 characters requires the kind of synthesis and higher order thinking we want our students to develop.

Students can use their phones, tablets, and laptops as fact checkers, information gatherers, opinion finders, and news seekers of real time data.   We could establish hashtags for our courses. Twitter feeds and/or Instagram posts could become course specific repositories of learning. Tools like TodaysMeet or PollEverywhere can be part of classroom interaction. New, free resources are constantly being developed. The possibilities are vast.

Up my Game

Of course, implicit in faculty whining about students’ inability to detach from their devices is the assumption that we behave differently. I don’t really agree. At most department meetings, I look around and see many colleagues with their electronics. Portions of the meeting an individual deems “relevant” are attended to; the rest of the meeting becomes the perfect opportunity to check email. [Full disclosure: I am disappointed when I forget my smart phone. I end up doodling all over the agenda.] Colleagues who don’t bring an electronic device (you know them, the Luddites and curmudgeons who eschew all things “technology”) often spend much of the meeting grading papers, editing a document, or doodling too. Is that intellectually very different than switching attention to an electronic device? Indeed, is web surfing and playing with a smart phone in class or during a meeting the 21st century version of doodling? Attention is not being paid to the speaker, the facilitator or the teacher whether checking the phone or in my case, doodling. (Credit Bob Paff for suggesting this to me during dinner.)

The point I’m trying to make is this: if a meeting item is “important,” we attend to it. If we decide something “unimportant” we may “check out” for that segment. Our students are the same. That means teachers really need to help students see the relevance of and personal connections to content. It’s far easier to write a “no screens” policy, with harsh penalties and stick it on the syllabus. Finding ways to help students connect with content, making lessons that are relevant to today’s students, and actively engaging them in the learning process each class period is much more difficult. But if we do that, we may find the lure of the phone and students’ habitual checking for updates will be less urgent during the few moments we share with them each week.


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on May 18, 2015, in Learning, Students and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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