Apr 06 2021

5 Facts About Online Learning Distractions that Educators Need to Know

How can faculty keep students from being distracted by the same technologies they use to learn?

Why Are my Students so Distracted?

All humans, not just students, are subject to attention fatigue. The longer we focus on challenging cognitive tasks, the more our attention drifts to simpler, more pleasant pursuits, such as social media. It’s nothing new: Even the ancient philosophers Aristotle and Augustine lamented our short attention spans.

Are Students More Distracted Online?

Despite what you’ve read online or heard on television, there’s little evidence that digital devices have diminished our intelligence or our attention spans. Today’s device and app makers, however, know exactly what sings to distractible minds. In other words, your students’ brains aren’t different from those of previous generations; rather, the distractions calling to them online are stronger than those of the past.

MORE ON EDTECH: Here's 3 ways to increase student engagement in online learning.

How Should I Talk to Students About Their Distractions?

Start by acknowledging that being distracted is normal, especially amid the stressors of a global pandemic. Empathize, but also remind them that distractions disrupt not only their learning but also that of their peers. Emphasize that attention is a gift students and teachers give to one another. Invite your students to help you create strategies that will support their attention online.

Should I Grade Students on Their Attention?

We would all fail a test of our attention. Instead, have students in synchronous classes create a concrete product, such as a shared document or a slideshow. Give full credit for completing the activity, which counts toward their grades. Putting small stakes on these activities shows that attention is critical to learning.

What Can I Do to Support Student Attention Online?

Provide a varied and transparent structure for synchronous classes. Plan your teaching sessions by breaking activities into short and varied modules: a 15-minute mini-lecture, 10 minutes of answering chat questions, a breakout room, then a closing discussion. At the start of class, explain to students how the session will unfold. Change renews attention, so build changes into your teaching plans.

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