Power of Distraction

A recent piece (US Unplugged) in the Times Higher collects quotes and stories from a number of institutions and individual tutors now discouraging the use of laptops in lectures and social networking on campus.

Some good quotes from Clifford Nass:

“It seemed as though they could actually do two things at once. What do these kids know that I don’t? It drove me crazy. That’s what inspired my research.”

But he found that “they’re not amazing. They can’t really do it.” His research shows that the students’ memories were disorganised; they fixated on irrelevant data, could not follow specific directions that required paying attention and wrote poorly.

… “We’ve reached a period where attention is no longer valued. There’s been a cultural change where we’ve forgotten about the idea of paying attention,” he says. “And people have started to resent that.”

I haven’t banned laptops from my own lectures – indeed, only small numbers of students bring laptops to lectures at UWS, so it hasn’t really been a major issue. In some classes I’ve given out laptops – but that has been to allow students to do practical work at set points in a class (its hard to teach programming in a lecture). I have this year used mobile phone based response/poll systems in class and that did work well – using the technology to concentrate attention on the task, without allowing it to become a distraction seems to be key.

Sherry Turkle makes a very worthwhile point:

But what professors are learning to say is: ‘You know what? In this class we’re here to be with each other. We’re here to be a community. Let’s make the most of it.’

There are of course two sides to this – lecturers need to do their part to engage students and to try to promote learning – and students need to learn how best to help themselves and understand the negative impacts of partial attention.

(See some of the other posts here on multi-tasking for links to other studies)

2 thoughts on “Power of Distraction

  1. Amanda

    I used to hate attending lectures(mainly programming) where other students had laptops as they only used them to play games on during the lecture (though i soon moved to the front and then didnt notice) Like the mobile idea though sounds more engaging.

  2. Daniel Post author

    For the programming lectures, I actually broke the lecture at a set point and gave a programming challenge. It was quite revealing how difficult many students found it to solve a problem even though all the information required was given… and could be done in just three or four lines of code.
    It is too easy to sit in a lecture and *think* that you understand something, actually being forced to use it is something else – and good use of laptops in lectures can help here. The issue is keeping focus and attention where its needed.


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