Students these days are distracted. Devices and social-media notifications constantly beckon, and in this time of COVID-19 and widespread remote instruction, the distractions have multiplied.
So what are educators to do?
That question is the topic of a new book out this month by James Lang, called “Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It.” It’s a surprisingly optimistic take on the topic—it goes out of its way not to blame students or urge blanket tech bans. But Lang admits that holding students’ attention is now harder than it’s been in the past, and he offers some practical suggestions on how to respond.
For the podcast this week, we connected with Lang—through a Zoom call, of course. He was in his home office in Massachusetts.
You may have seen Lang’s writings about teaching before. He has been writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education for more than 20 years, most recently as a monthly teaching columnist, and he has bylines in popular publications including the Boston Globe and Time magazine. He’s also in the classroom (well, a virtual one these days) as a professor of English at Assumption University, where he is also the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.
We talked about his tips for holding attention during online classes, his thoughts on banning devices in the classroom and how he got into writing about teaching in the first place.
Listen to this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Below are lightly edited highlights from the conversation.
EdSurge: In researching this book, you write that you spent two years looking at distraction in classrooms. It almost makes it sound like you were lurking in classrooms, watching if students are paying attention. Can you talk about some of your research methods?
Lang: There were two strains of research I conducted for the book. One of them was the very traditional strain of reading research on attention, neuroscience, cognitive psychology and all that stuff. And I was very interested in what people were saying about attention and distraction and the brain, and whether that’s changing as a result of our devices.
The other came about kind of serendipitously actually. ... I had been appointed to our tenure and promotion committee two years ago. And I was the chair of it last year. We had a lot of cases. And for every one of those cases, I had to observe at least one class for all the candidates and sometimes more than one class. So this meant I was observing dozens of classes over the course of a couple of years.
While I was looking at these classes to see how effective the teacher was in general, you can usually get a pretty good sense of that within the first 15 or 30 minutes of a class period. And of course I was reading all this stuff about attention and distraction, [so I would look at when] were students tuned in and paying attention to what the teacher had to say, and when were they off task on their devices? And it was interesting to correlate what I was seeing with what I was reading, and to notice what were the things that teachers did that seemed to push students away and nudge them toward their distractions, and the things that drew them in, or drew them back in after they had been away for a little while.
Is there anything that seemed to consistently lose the crowd?
One of the things that I talk about in the book is the presence of the instructor, and how felt that presence is in the actual space of a classroom. When you watch a lot of classes, what you’ll notice is that there is this kind of invisible fence, right at the front of the room that the instructor often will stay behind. And the instructor occupies this little empty space between the front of the row of seats and the board. It was very evident over the course of multiple observations that students were more willing to go off task when the instructor confined him or herself into that little space.
Whereas when instructors were more willing to come out into the seats and to move around and command the whole room, that made it more challenging for students. It kind of awakened them when an instructor was standing right next to them, or when an instructor was speaking from the back of the room, calling on someone in the front, and just making more use of the physical space of the classroom, being more fully present in the whole space.
Also, people will say students lose their attention if you lecture at them for a long time. What I actually noticed was that students lose their attention if you do anything for a long time. This correlates very well with research that says attention is susceptible to fatigue. So over time, if you’re doing anything that’s cognitively challenging, you’re going to start to require more and more effort to pay attention.
I’ve taught by discussion for many years in my literature and writing classes. And I know that you can lose students just as easily in a 75-minute discussion as you can in a 75-minute lecture. So part of what we have to do as teachers is be aware of that ebb and flow [of attention] and recognize: When do I need to make an intervention here to try to get students back into the room with me?
Is it harder to keep students attention now than in the past?
I keep a very middle ground position on this. There’s a chapter of that book that goes through the history of people talking about their distractible minds. I cite Aristotle and Augustus and our ancient religious texts, and they all talk about the fact that our minds are easily distracted and they’ve evolved that way.
At the same time, we are in an era in which companies are spending massive amounts of dollars in order to create devices that capture our attention. So we have to be aware of the fact that we’re in a period in which there are acute challenges to our attention.
The title of your book suggests that there’s something professors can do about how distracted students are these days. What else can educators do?
So the question that teachers have been asking themselves from the beginning is: How do I teach to a distractible mind? Because the mind of everyone in the classroom or in that online space is distractible.
And it’s a part of a teacher’s job, in my view, to think about: How do you cultivate and sustain the attention of students? … We’re directing the attention of our students to the places that will help them learn something important to the things that will help them create a better world. But we’re also having to cultivate their attention within the actual moment of the classroom experience.
Hear the rest of the interview on the EdSurge Podcast, on the player on this page, on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.