Category Archives: Attention

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)


Thanks to Jon Richter for this one. A nice piece with lots of great quotes and informative interviews on distraction and information overload in the New York Magazine, here. To a fair extent the reporter seems to spend 4/5 of the piece writing about the hazards of information overload/multi-tasking before concluding that there is no problem.

When Students Attempt to Multitask in the Lecture Hall…

Pointed to this article in Chronicle Careers, on the effect of modern distractions in the lecture hall, by yet another post on the Second Life Education Mailing list. For a short article, it covers a lot of ground – and some of the points are quite thought provoking. More below.

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Encouraging creativity and engaging students… without games

I do believe that games are a useful addition to the educators armoury of tools and techniques, but I also don’t like any implication that they should become the automatic tool of preference. There are many ways to engage students, such as detailed in this recent news piece from the BBC:

 Pupils who have worked with creative people such as writers and fashion designers are more punctual, better behaved and work better, Ofsted says.

Pay attention now!

A nice little summary of some of Prensky’s writing is to be found on the online Encyclopedia of Educational Technology. It includes the joke that Prensky makes about ADD. This is part of the ‘Engage me or Enrage me’ theme he presents. Basically, he claims, the problem is not that ‘kids’ have problems with attention, its just that they don’t want to – or that this is only a problem for the old-fashioned methods of teaching. Kids are so used to operating at ‘Twitch Speed’ that anything less just doesn’t cut it.

Well what if it turned out there were ways of improving childrens attention at school without any need to convert the curriculum into a series of digital games? If instead of pandering to the need for constant visual stimulation, it were possible to help children learn the discipline required for concentrating, listening and thinking without flashy graphics? It appears that there may be one fairly simple solution that can lead to dramatic improvements: it’s called food.

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