How to maintain student engagement and attention in classes is a long-standing question for many educators. Yet this question has come particularly to the fore in the wake of the emergency remote instruction necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic where uses of technology for learning became a more commonplace part of the classroom environment. As students and instructors alike had more sustained experiences with accessing learning experiences online, they also faced a core struggle of being online all the time: what it looks like to stay focused on the educational experience. Even as we’ve now experienced several semesters in classrooms on-campus, how technologies can support sustained attention and focus has yet again been a question. As Cathy Davidson writes in her book How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, “our era may be obsessed with attention, distraction, and multitasking, but I’m convinced that these age-old concerns always emerge with new force whenever a major new technology makes us aware of the habits, patterns, and processes that had been invisible before” (p. 281). We find ourselves, then, at yet another inflection point where we become aware of what it means to create a meaningful, attentive classroom environment.
There is ample research to show that multitasking leads to poorer learning outcomes. In particular, the use, and even the presence of a mobile phone in a learning environment, can lead to some negative academic outcomes. Lepp, Barkley, and Karpinsky (2015) found from a sample of 500+ students at a Midwestern university that there was a significant negative relationship between cell phone use and academic performance (as measured by overall GPA). Similarly, Jacobsen and Forste (2011) found that, through time-diary and survey data, there was a similarly negative relationship between GPA averages and cell phone use. That said, both of these studies have some significant limitations; neither study differentiated between different kinds of uses of the cell phones, which may have meant some omissions in terms of understanding use cases where students were using phones for their learning or, alternatively, using phones as their only device for accessing instructional material. These studies are also relatively old in terms of assessing impacts of technology on student learning; we know from Pew Research Center data (2021) that student usage of cell phones is almost ubiquitous, and that low-income students are more likely to own a cell phone than another device, like a laptop, for their learning (Aslanian and Clinefelter 2012).
A temptation for reducing the risk of multitasking is often to ban device usage from classrooms. However, many students may require using a device, such as a laptop or mobile device, for formal accommodation. Banning the use of such devices may unintentionally lead students to disclose disabilities to their peers that they may not have otherwise shared. Further still, creating “technology zones” in a classroom also (perhaps unintentionally) creates a discriminatory environment where students with accommodations to use technology are “othered” or distanced from students who do not have those same accommodations. Even if these attempts against multi-tasking are well-intentioned, any environment where students feel that their device use is stigmatized is not an inclusive learning environment.
So, what are the best ways to encourage engagement in a class without running the risk of technological distraction? Here are some suggestions:
Discuss approaches to using technology in engaged ways with your students. Allow your students to volunteer suggestions for how they’d like to engage with technology in your class. According to research from Smale and Regaldo (2017), many students see mobile devices in particular as a more convenient device to use in class to access course readings and resources. Discuss what these use cases might mean for students and how they can leverage the affordances of a mobile device in the class environment.
Explore strategies to help your students engage with your course materials online. Incorporate multimedia resources for your students to engage with and learn from, like short videos, podcasts, animations demonstrating course concepts or problem solving, or images. Create opportunities for students to explore the dynamic nature of your course content together in pairs or small groups.
Provide classroom technology guidelines in your course syllabus. Help students become aware of the many ways in which technology can distract from their learning by establishing classroom guidelines for how to manage technology. To limit distractions for individuals and their peers, encourage students to do the following:
Disable push notifications and alerts on laptop and mobile devices.
Silence mobile devices (disabling chime, ring, and vibration).
Recognize how often you multi-task and adjust by limiting how many physical and visual tasks are capturing your attention (Whitford 2018). For example, consider how many browser tabs are on display while taking notes, how many applications are running, or how often you find yourself checking for new emails or messages.
To mimic the benefits of conceptual learning when taking handwritten notes (Morehead et al. 2019), I encourage you to use a stylus and tablet device over typing notes with a keyboard, when possible.
Create intentional moments of interaction between and among students. Design activities or breaks in a lecture-style class where students can engage with each other off the screen as needed. This might mean creating think-pair-share activities where students think independently, team up with each other to discuss a particular question, and then share with a smaller group (or the full class environment). Creating some active breaks from engaging with the content can get students engaging with each other rather than with their screens.
Use technology to foster classroom participation. Model appropriate uses of technology in the classroom by leveraging student response systems that students can access on their mobile devices. Design polling activities, low-stakes quizzes, or brief warm-up exercises with tools like Poll Everywhere(link is external)that allow students to engage with classroom activities using a QR code or text response. Mobile and web-enabled student response systems provide rapid feedback to support student learning, can shift a passive learning experience to an active one, and are cost-efficient (Sarvary and Gifford 2017).
There are a lot of ways to be intentional about how technology can support, and not detract from, classroom practice, and it may take some trial and error to learn what works best for your class and context. If you are needing additional support in doing so, don’t hesitate to meet with a member of the CTL team. You can reach us by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org(link sends e-mail)
Aslanian, C.B. & Clinefelter, D.L. (2012). Online college students 2012: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. The Learning House, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.learninghouse.com(link is external)
Davidson, C. (2011). Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. Penguin Group.
Glass, A.L. & Kang, M. (2019). Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance, Educational Psychology, 39:3, 395-408, DOI: 10.1080/01443410.2018.1489046
Jacobsen, W. C., & Forste, R. (2011). The wired generation: Academic and social outcomes of electronic media use among university students. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14(5), 275-280.
Lepp, A., Barkley, J. E., & Karpinski, A. C. (2015). The relationship between cell phone use and academic performance in a sample of US college students. Sage Open, 5(1), 2158244015573169.
“Mobile Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (April 7, 2021). https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile/(link is external)
Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J. & Rawson, K.A. How Much Mightier Is the Pen than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014). Educ Psychol Rev 31, 753–780 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09468-2(link is external)
Sarvary MA, Gifford KM. The Benefits of a Real-Time Web-Based Response System for Enhancing Engaged Learning in Classrooms and Public Science Events. J Undergrad Neurosci Educ. 2017 Jun 15;15(2):E13-E16. PMID: 28690444; PMCID: PMC5480850.
Smale, M. A., & Regaldo, M. (2017). Digital Technology as Affordance and Barrier to Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan.