I’ve come very late to the realization that my students suffer from the human condition called distraction. The irony is that I have, in some ways, promoted this via a digital devices policy designed to support multiple modes of learning and interaction in the classroom. Contrary to the higher ed legend that digital devices inherently detract from the learning process, laptops and mobile devices can play all sorts of important roles…
…except when they don’t. My turning point was last fall, when I carefully constructed and discussed a digital devices policy in a second-year course, only to discover that it was routinely violated, flagrantly by some students and occasionally by many others. Truth is, some students are simply incapable of focus when a device is around them—see for instance this music performance coach’s post about the mere presence of devices during practice.
So, what to do? I’ve just posted about some important recent and upcoming changes in my life, and one goal is this:
I will value each opportunity we have together, especially in class. I will try to structure class as a moment to pause, reconnect with each other, and learn together.
This involves a different sort of focus. There will be three main things I’ll do for us to work toward this important classroom climate:
- I’ll simplify the syllabus and schedule to make sure we are not reproducing the same anxiety-provoking, distraction-inducing reality we see around us—it can be hard to focus in such an overwhelming world.
- I’ll ask students to take one minute with me to check in and out of class. The technique is simple: put everything away for a moment, breathe in and out, notice what is within and around you, then set (at the end, revisit) a learning intent.
- And more to the point of the above: I’ll ask students to put away all laptops and mobile devices for the duration of class, except for those who successfully propose to me (and assiduously follow) a personal distraction-free digital policy; see resources below, and read instructions at bottom so you know what’s expected of you (the bar is high).
I’ll check in later in the semester on how it goes! Students, let’s partner on this to make it successful.
Some digital device use/distraction avoidance resources
- Establish a note-taking strategy. Your main use of digital devices in most classes is to take notes. Your strategy will vary depending on how the instructor presents information, but get beyond being a scribe: dutifully duplicating your instructor’s lecture went out about 500 years ago. Learn how to outline; learn how to organize notes under key questions; learn how to use sections of notes for your own questions and followup to dos. There are lots of pointers online (some of which work better/worse with digital notetaking).
- Organize your notes and other class resources. One advantage of digital devices is that you can efficiently organize, and thus find, notes and other resources. This could be as simple as dedicating a laptop folder or Google Drive folder to the course, but if you are using a notes app such as Evernote you can tag your notes to organize them. (No matter which app you use, you can readily add hashtags to the text, then search all notes for a particular hashtag.)
- Organize your thoughts via mind/concept-mapping. An entirely different way to take notes uses visual organization via mind or concept mapping: see this help page, and there are many other apps to consider (see e.g. here or here—I use Mindmeister on my laptop and devices for this).
- Consider how to do readings. Another main use of digital devices in class is to view and annotate readings. I use private Zotero group libraries to share readings with students, which typically are viewed and annotated via a PDF reader such as Acrobat or Mac Preview. Some students, however, prefer to read and markup old-fashioned print hardcopies of readings, which is fine as well.
- Consider how to do online searches. Finally, digital devices can fruitfully be used to search online bibliographic, data, and other resources, as organized for instance in our ENVS research guide. The trick is that your browser, of course, can go anywhere…so you would need to blacklist distracting sites using apps such as linked below.
- ULTIMATELY…focus your device use on a restricted set of apps or browser URLs. Okay, so there are many useful apps…but there are others on your device too, and let’s get this straight: there is simply no justification for texting (etc.) during class. So, how to avoid this and other distractions? Yes, there are apps (and guidance) for that! Here are some:
- First, declutter, set up, and organize your digital device to reduce distractions (guidance here).
- Important!: recent operating systems on your computer may help you focus. Consider, for instance, Do Not Disturb on your Mac and Quiet Hours on your PC. These settings help you avoid being disturbed by, for instance, new texts and emails.
- If your OS settings aren’t enough, there are other ways to lock out all unneeded apps and browser windows; see a whole host of apps to help you do this here and here. Two good ones, for example, are Freedom and Focus. (You’ll need to demonstrate to me how you will use these apps, so make sure to fully learn and implement the one you choose.)
- Finally, ask yourself: do you need to be online to do your work in class? If not, simply go offline, which removes many (not all!) distractions. As one example, you can work offline with Google files using Chrome.
A successful personal distraction-free digital policy will consider all elements above, and apply them to a clear statement of your learning goals in the course, how you will assess your adherence to the policy, and what consequences will follow if you do not adhere to the policy you devised for yourself.
Plan to email me your proposal, then make an office hours appointment in which you will demonstrate how you will use digital devices in a focused manner and we will discuss your proposal. Typically I will request clarification or elaboration before approval; you will need to continue using analog devices (e.g., pen and paper) in class in the meantime.
Bear in mind that I will occasionally check your adherence to the policy we agree on—and that staring at your lap (i.e., texting) or smiling at your computer (i.e., reacting to a friend’s FB status update) are dead giveaways I see all the time.
1/16/18 update: I now have a GoogleForm for students to submit their proposal online.