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Digital Distraction in the Classroom

With smart phones, tablets and laptops close at hand, it can be easy for students to get distracted during class. Faculty often find themselves competing with these digital devices for their students’ attention, and it can become frustrating for some. Although the easy response is to just ban the use of all digital devices in class, that in itself can cause many issues, including the following:

  • hurting those who may depend upon technology as a means to access and record information
  • increasing student anxiety by being separated from their devices (or a “Fear of Missing Out”)
  • preventing opportunities for students to interact with information outside of the classroom

So how do we help students take advantage of the powers of technology without losing them to the pitfalls of distraction? To solve this problem, the IDEA Shop has developed a set of five strategies to help you handle digital devices in the classroom:

  1. Define your digital use policy. First, think about your student audience and determine why students may or may not use devices. Then state clearly in your syllabus what your policy is for devices in class (banning them, allowing them, or using a selective/hybrid approach). Be transparent with your students on why you have implemented this policy so they understand your rationale.
  2. On Day 1 of class, state your policy. Let students know from the start what your policy is, and point it out in the syllabus. Address any concerns our questions that students may have about your policy and be transparent about your reasons for having it. As the semester proceeds, restate your digital use policy as needed.
  3. Direct your students in their use of devices. If going with a hybrid approach, tell students when devices need to come out or be put away, and explain why. Break up your instruction into 10-15 minute segments. Spend the first 10 minutes (when you have their greatest attention) giving instruction, and then follow it with an activity using their device. Also, be sure to include tech breaks during class so students can check their messages or complete anything involving their device.
  4. Manage your classroom setup. If you allow students to freely use devices in class, you may consider setting up digital zones in class, where those with devices are placed in the back of class to create minimal distraction for the other students. Another great idea is to untether yourself from the podium and walk around the classroom, presenting from a mobile device. By changing your proximity to students, they are no longer able to hide behind their devices are more likely to pay attention to you.
  5. Pair active learning with devices. Have your students use their devices to actively engage with the content. Find meaningful activities that allow students to create and collaborate with one another as they connect with the information from class.

If you’d like more information on ways in which you can best utilize digital devices in class and minimize distraction, contact us at the IDEA Shop, and one of our Instructional Design Consultants would be more than happy to meet with you. You can also check out some of the resources on digital distraction listed below.

Faculty/Student Materials

Multitasking and Digital Distraction: A guide for students on how to use digital devices mindfully in class.


Should College Professors Give ‘Tech Breaks’ In Class? 

Pauline Hope Cheong, Robert Shuter & Tara Suwinyattichaiporn (2016) Managing student digital distractions and hyperconnectivity: communication strategies and challenges for professorial authority, Communication Education, 65:3, 272-289, DOI: 10.1080/03634523.2016.1159317