A bored and distracted student shows why it's important to have strategies for battling student distraction.

Use these strategies to fight student distraction

Personalized learning and gamification are a couple strategies used in battling student distraction

Battling student distraction is a real–if not new–thing. While it’s always been challenging to ensure students are engaged in learning, the increased use of laptops and smartphones offers more opportunities to veer off-task. But increased classroom technology also offers more opportunities for instructors to keep students engaged.

A 2018 survey found 87 percent of people think students are distracted now more than ever before. Of professors using technology in the classroom, 85 percent are hoping to improve engagement, and 51 percent say their biggest teaching challenge is students not paying attention or participating in class.

Related content: Dealing with digital distractions in the classroom

But instead of blaming technology as the culprit, what if educators could turn technology distractions into learning opportunities? That’s exactly what some forward-thinking professors are doing as they’re battling student distraction.

This resource from Top Hat offers some insights into battling student distraction:

1. Personalize learning: Allow students to drive the personalization of their learning by choosing their assignment topics, pursuing curiosities sparked in class, and sharing and collaborating with their peers. When technology is applied, these projects become more meaningful because they can be shared with a wider audience through social media, video content, blogs and podcasts.

2. Play the game: Studies show the gamification of course content has a positive impact on both engagement and learning by using competitive scenarios and the distribution of points or rewards. To ensure the methods are also effective, they must be designed to support course learning objectives.

3. Teach the future: Students are training for jobs and technologies that don’t yet exist and in this digital world, technology is a life skill. According to the 2017 NMC Horizon Report, being digitally literate is about generating a deeper understanding of the digital environment, enabling intuitive adaptation to new contexts and co-creation with others.

4. Mine the data: Track the amount of time and effort students are devoting to a course, identify patterns in class quizzes, and test for key concept comprehension and origins of misunderstandings. Technology enables for real-time feedback in the midst of a lecture and can speed up the process of taking attendance and tracking student performance.

5. Refresh the lecture: Each year, mixing up the material and instruction with video content, social media fodder and the latest technology trends can help a course stay relevant and keep students engaged. With technology in the classroom, students have instant access to fresh information to supplement their learning experience.

How professors are battling student distraction

Two professors say they’re battling student distraction with tools to boost engagement. Both use Top Hat’s active learning technology to keep students engaged, but there are a multitude of tools and strategies that can be used, including social media such as Twitter, polling tools such as Socrative or PollEverywhere, and interactive real-time discussion board or chats.

“Over the years, I’ve noticed that as more technology is in place, there’s more distraction,” says Shaun Dakin, an adjunct professor of marketing at George Mason University in Virginia. “[Students] may all have their laptops or phones open, and I can’t go around and check [their devices], but if I use technology, I can be absolutely sure they’re participating. When I have them do things online, they’re engaged–they have to be engaged, whether they like it or not.”

Dakin uses many of the strategies outlined above when it comes to battling student distraction, and these strategies have a number of benefits. Yes, they help increase engagement, but they also give voice to students who want to participate but who are not confident speaking out in class.

Dakin uses Top Hat to create his own content and embed questions, quizzes, and discussion items within web-based content. He also creates a class hashtag on Twitter and uses Kahoot! at the beginning of each class.

Kahoot! is helpful, Dakin says, because he has students create a Kahoot! competition. Students are put on teams that remain the same throughout each semester, and teams create their own questions based on the textbook content. The entire class has discussions about each question and answer.

TopHat’s discussion feature is also a useful tool to combat student distraction at the end of class. Dakin uses the feature and asks each student to tell him the most important thing they learned during that class. “It’s really helpful for me to see if they’re learning what they should be learning, and [it helps me gauge if] what I think is important is what they think is important,” he says.

“It’s an unrealistic expectation to think you can have all of the attention all of the time–particularly in large classroom,” says Matt Numer, an assistant professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University in Canada. Battling student distraction can be a tall task, because Numer teachers 500 students in a 3-hour human sexuality class.

“It presents a unique challenge, because it’s a fairly sensitive topic. Keeping attention isn’t just about advancing student knowledge and engagement–it’s also about keeping control in the classroom,” he says.

Numer uses varied techniques to reset student attention and keep them engaged.

“I use Top Hat a lot for polling–it lends itself really well to that in this environment,” he says. “Students can answer questions and see themselves represented in the data when they wouldn’t normally otherwise. Most people aren’t going to raise their hand in a 500-person classroom, and most people aren’t going to answer the questions I ask. I ask very sensitive questions, and [with Top Hat], students can see what their peers are thinking. People are often very surprised to see that other people are like them.”

An online discussion thread running in the background lets students ask questions and vote on other questions that have already been submitted. The most voted-on questions move to the top, enabling Numer to address the most popular questions and anticipate what students will ask in future classes.

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Laura Ascione

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