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Stephanie Chasteen




Digital distraction in the classroom

posted: July 11, 2012 by

At the start of my summer class this year, a quiet and diligent student asked a seemingly innocuous question.  “Do you allow use of laptops in class?”  Sure, I said, as long as they’re on task.  I had my TA sit behind her a few times and double-check — she was indeed simply using the online lecture material and taking notes as she went.  I was satisfied.  And she was the only student bringing a laptop to class.

But somehow, around week 2 or 3 (out of 5), something changed.  It was so insidious, I didn’t even realize there was a problem until it was too late.  While I had been distracted by the rigors of teaching a summer course, somehow more laptops had snuck their way in.  I was writing on the board, and looked up and realized that about a fourth of the class wasn’t looking at me.  They were looking down, at their laptop or their cell phone.  I became more emphatic, gesturing to items on my slide, or saying, “as we can see here” as I worked a problem on the board.  But despite the fact that I knew that my gestures and board work could NOT be included on the online lecture notes, they did not look up to see what I was doing.  In the final week of class I had a guest lecturer, and I noticed that one of my students was focused on his laptop screen rather than this energetic, award-winning instructor.  I quietly went and stood behind him, and indeed, he was looking at something completely off-task.  I whispered to him to please focus his attention on the lecture.

What is even more shocking, at least to me, was that this was in a small class (only 18 students) where there is no hope of anonymity.  I’m standing right there in front of them, I know their name, and yet somehow texting and laptop use “crept in” behind my back.  Also shocking was the fact that this was no ordinary lecture class, where I was simply reading off the lecture slides and working through example problems from the book.  I had made great efforts to make the course interactive, with clicker questions, hands-on experiments, worksheets and activities, computer simulations, small group discussions, and interactive demonstrations.  Students were paired with “learning groups” that rotated each week.  They were asked to discuss challenging questions with their neighbors.  I had them get up out of their seats to do mini experiments and see how physics really worked.   We discussed explicitly, several times, how important engagement was for their success and their learning.  And yet, when we got into lecture-mode to wrap up and understand these engaging activities that we’d done — so many of them were tuning out.

What happened?

Even in this ideal environment, the temptation of digital distraction was too high.  I might view this akin to addictive behavior now, and realize that students need more explicit support in order to do the right thing for their learning.  I think that the biggest mistake that I made was to fail to have explicit guidelines for use of technology (laptops, cell phones) in class.  I just didn’t think I had to, but now I know that was wrong.  And when I saw *some* off-task behavior, I should not have ignored it for that one time, since that sent an implicit message.  I think that it’s important to be aware of the classroom culture or social norms that are being established, either explicitly or implicitly.  I spent a lot of time implicitly setting up a culture of collaboration, but did not attend to creating explicit guidelines for engagement and behavior in class.

Social contracts

An instructor here at the University of Colorado at Boulder wrote a fantastic article about establishing social contracts about digital distraction in the classroom.  Rather than setting down rules from above about student behavior, Dr. Sieber has students collaboratively develop behavioral guidelines for the virtual and in-person classroom.  This “initiation ritual” helps to create a cohesive community, as well as help students to learn to navigate the online platform for the course.  I wrote last month about improving online discussion boards, and I think that this would have been an excellent first required activity for the online discussion — to establish a social contract.

In a nutshell, here is what Dr. Sieber does with her students:

  • They write two social contracts, one for in-class behaviors and one for online
  • Students first post their expectations of themselves and their peers
  • Students vote on each proposal
  • The individual ideas are put together into a working constitution for the class
  • Students agree to enforce the constitution

Dr. Sieber says that the way that the instructions are framed to students helps to guarantee the success of the enterprise, and provides some sample instructions in the original article.  One thing that shines through to me in all her writings are the immense respect that she has for her students and for the utility of this process.  Over and over I’ve found that students are remarkably sensitive to subtle indications of instructor regard.

In talking to Dr. Sieber, I know that she finds that she does not need to explicitly ask students to address technological distractions .  Students always bring up issues such as laptop and cell phone use in class.  See the original article for details on what rules students often impose on themselves and their peers.


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5 Responses to “Digital distraction in the classroom”

  1. Andy Rundquist, Hamline University Says:

    Whenever I see multiple students getting distracted, I try to investigate whether what’s going on at the time is worthwhile. If it is, I try to engage the students about why they think it’s not worthwhile. However, most of the time, I come to the conclusion that the activity is not worthwhile. In the example you give here, it seems to me that the students are “voicing” their opinion that the “lecture-mode to wrap up and understand these engaging activities” is not worthwhile to them. Maybe something could be done to have them contribute more, along the lines, say, of a whiteboard conference that modelers use.

    Having said that, if a review convinces you that it is worthwhile, it can still be nearly impossible to convince students of that, especially if there’s no payoff for them in the short run. An example from my own teaching is when we do some interactive demo but then I go off on a tangent about a change/complication that we could think about, but not actually pull off in class that day (maybe because we don’t own the equipment). While some students continue to be engaged with that conversation, some lessen their engagement because it doesn’t seem to be as interactive. However, weeks later, they’ll find that just that sort of tangential thinking shows up on the exam.

  2. Paul Camp, Spelman College Says:

    An architect friend of mine liked to tell a story about how her former boss conducted meetings. He said that sometimes he will tell his people “I’ve run a lot of meeting over the years and in my experience, these rules of behavior always help to make the meeting run smoothly and amicably.”

    That never worked.

    But if he asked the participants to make a set of rules, they would come up with essentially the same ones but this time they would follow them. I’ve taken a similar approach to constructing things like evaluation rubrics.

    Having said that, though, I’ve never constructed such a contract for general class behavior. I do, however, devote the first day of each semester to a short lesson on how people learn, and how that explains the peculiar structure of my classes. Part of that is the research of Stanford psychologist Clifford Nass on the negative effects of multitasking on learning. But in the end I tell them they are adults. They can make their own decisions. Here’s what the data says, if you choose to goof off anyway, that’s your own lookout. Around a third of the class pretty reliably chooses to continue goofing off.

    Maybe that’s too hands off, and this is an interesting alternative. At the end of the day, they are adults, and part of their maturation process involves taking responsibility for their own actions. I make the nature of the choice clear to them, but I’ve never taken any action to insure that they have all actually made a conscious decision.

  3. Stephanie Chasteen Says:

    Thank to Paul and Andy for their thoughtful replies. See also Rhett Alain’s thoughts on this post over at DotPhysics:

    Andy, Rhett’s response to the post gets at some of what I’ve been thinking about regarding your “is it worth their while?” question. I do see the class as “good for them,” and that includes both the more easy-to-engage-in hands-on activities, as well as the discussion afterwards. While I respect students’ opinions and reactions to the class, I also don’t know that I would automatically trust that if they are “voting with their distraction” that that vote is valid. In other words, just because they’re distracted doesn’t mean that the activity is not worthwhile. It may not be worthwhile, but it may also be that it’s just more work to engage in. And my failure was to not explicitly address the point and say that these were worthwhile aspects of the class (generally) and that it was in their best interest to engage in them.

    Plus, it’s also just plain rude. I spend a lot of time trying to give them a worthwhile educational experience, and then they tune out as soon as it becomes easy to do so. There is a norm of social acceptability that, to me, is not upheld by such behavior. As Paul says, they are adults and can make their own decisions, but to some degree, I need to make it clear what is considered “adult’ behavior in my class. Because they’re adults, not preschoolers, they can adequately make that set of rules themselves, if I give them that opportunity.

    That said, I’m sure that some disengagement is caused by activities that are less worthwhile than others. I’m not saying that everything I do in the class is brilliant and inspired, because it most certainly isn’t. I did notice that the disengagement increased as I became more distracted by some items out of the classroom. But the general principle holds — engage if you want to do well, and if you want to be polite to your prof. :-)

  4. Norm Sperling, UC Berkeley Says:

    Hi Stephanie! The same behavior happens across most or all teaching styles, so teaching style is not the relevant factor. Age is. You can legalistically declare them “adults” but 18-year-olds most often act like 18-year-olds. They’re only a couple years beyond the cause for the great-titled book “Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?” by Anthony E. Wolf, 2002.

    Teach older adults and you’ll discover extremely different behavior, far more attentive and cooperative.

    Many 18s are mature enough for college (some 15s are) but many are not. Most flunk-outs are from (mis)behavior, not insufficient intellect.

    Best wishes,
    Norm Sperling

  5. Lance Eaton Says:

    Hi Stephanie,

    This is something we all face with the changing dynamics of classrooms. I too have lamented or considered the question of where technology is in within the classroom ( What has worked best for me is to require them to email notes to the instructor at the end of class. If they don’t have substantial notes, their privilege to use a laptop is rejected. My approach is that if they can produce respectable notes while doing those distracting things–well, who am I to judge since in my day, I certainly doodled, wrote short stories, etc and still took substantial notes.

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