Overcoming Student Distraction

focused mother working on laptop near disturbing daughter

While there has been significant progress on the many natural, technological, and pedagogical challenges encountered over the last year, faculty continually confront issues that were around long before the pandemic and have only been exacerbated by its far-reaching effects. For example, distraction and a lack of engagement in the virtual and physical classroom is hardly a new phenomenon. Fortunately, there are several insightful resources with useful suggestions on handling these seemingly more intractable issues.

One of the leading voices in the discussion around student distraction is James Lang, professor of English and director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Through a series of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as in his recent book Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, Lang provides useful context for the various pieces of the larger problem. 

Talking to Inside Higher Education, Lang weighed in on the longstanding debate around devices in the classroom. After noting the debate is somewhat “pointless” during this period of device-centric learning, Lang makes the more important point that device usage needs to be “context-specific.” This not only more adequately addresses the nuance of using technology across modalities but reinforces the idea that what we want our students to learn should always drive our technology decisions. At Miami Online, this idea manifests itself in our teaching first, technology second approach to all aspects of course design and delivery.

In addition to the historical context he provides — i.e., we have always been prone to distraction, and now we have devices that are very good at providing them — Lang goes on to describe “the primary idea” he wants readers to take away from his work. Namely, “instead of worrying about the distractions that interfere with learning, we should be focused on how we can help cultivate and sustain attention in the classroom. Attention is an achievement, not something we should take for granted. Since learning depends upon attention, it should have a prominent place in the way in which we think about our courses and classrooms.” To that end, Lang suggests that we look to the work of poets and playwrights. Playwrights use structure (e.g. acts, scenes) and variety (e.g. denouement, characters coming and going). Poets ask us to reconsider the everyday and the seemingly mundane with renewed curiosity. For Lang, “great teachers do the same.” This is part and parcel of creating a classroom “as a retreat space” as Lang points to the essay by Esteban Loustaunau describing the idea. 

As we look to practice self-care while also paying attention to the needs of our students by creating a “retreat space” it might be useful to focus on one of Lang’s final points, “Teachers should push beyond thinking about attention as a one-way street from student to teacher. Attention is a gift we can all give one another in the classroom: teacher to student, student to teacher and student to student.”