Teaching a Distracted Generation to Focus

In the course of researching this post, my phone vibrated seven times. I checked Facebook three times and my email twice. An article that should have taken me at most ten minutes to read took me double that. Needless to say, I illustrate perfectly some research recently done by Larry Rosen, an expert in the psychology of technology and a professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Rosen and his team of researchers recently observed 263 middle school, high school, and university students studying in their homes. Most were not able to go 15 minutes without giving into some distraction. On average, they only managed to really focus for three to four minutes before the allure of technology became too much. The distraction usually came from three sources: a device like a laptop or smartphone, texting or Facebook.

The extent to which such distractibility influenced the students’ overall school performance shocked the researchers. Checking phones or email was indicative of a larger academic trend. Students who checked Facebook just once during the 15 minute period had lower grade point averages than those who didn’t.

Even those who didn’t check Facebook regularly were plagued by thoughts of what they were missing. Did anyone like their Facebook status? Had their friend responded to their text message yet? Even if the physical reminder — the buzzing, flashing phone — is removed from view, as many teachers insist on in their classroom, the anxiety that these kinds of thoughts produce inhibits learning.

Technology is not disappearing anytime soon, so as a remedy for lagging focus Rosen suggests technology breaks. During such a break, the teacher asks all students to check their texts, email, Facebook for a minute before turning the device on silent and placing it upside down on the desk in front of them. They then focus on classroom work for 15 minutes.

“The upside-down device prohibits external distractions from vibrations and flashing alerts and provides a signal to the brain that there is no need to be internally distracted, because an opportunity to ‘check in’ will be coming soon,” Rosen writes.

Gradually, the teacher will lengthen the period between technology breaks. Though the strategy has been effective in classrooms and staff meetings, the maximum time the researchers have been able to get between breaks is 30 minutes. Still, the breaks are an effective tool to train the brain to focus, and they are all the more necessary as technology becomes an even greater presence in our lives.

Claire Perlman

Claire Perlman is a senior at UC Berkeley who covers Technapex's higher education beat. She is majoring in English literature and worked at her college’s student newspaper, The Daily Californian, for two years as a science reporter and news editor. She is currently working at UC Berkeley’s Mark Twain Project transcribing Twain’s letters and unpublished manuscripts.

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About Claire Perlman

Claire Perlman is a senior at UC Berkeley who covers Technapex's higher education beat. She is majoring in English literature and worked at her college’s student newspaper, The Daily Californian, for two years as a science reporter and news editor. She is currently working at UC Berkeley’s Mark Twain Project transcribing Twain’s letters and unpublished manuscripts.
  • http://cleverculture.net/ Julian Bowers-Brown

    Claire, really appreciate the article and pointer to the study by Prefessor Rosen. As a tutor and learning consultant to students, I know how both they and their parents can feel almost beholden to the beeps, tweets and ringtones of their multiple devices. As Dr Robert Cialdini has mentioned elsewhere, we can all too easily and automatically responding to these ‘click, whir’ heuristic cues. Having employed similar strategies in designing more useful environmental contexts to help students create improved study habits, it is good to learn of further scientifically based strategies that can transfer to real world situations.

  • Nelda LeCroy

    Thanks for this insight. I’m actually showing my students the article today and challenging them to recognize and develop a plan for their own brand of technological distraction.