5 Ways To Engage Increasingly Distracted Students

  • Alanna Harvey
  • 31 May 2017
  • 11:30 AM

Today's fast-paced innovation is putting pressure on the human brain in more ways now than in all of human history. Our attention spans are shortening, mankind's propensity to multi-task is at an all-time high, and technology designers know exactly how to keep us in an endless loop that's made focusing more difficult than ever.

One educator who understands exactly what's happening is award-winning professor, speaker, and business-brain expert, Dr. Brynn Winegard. More specifically, she understands how these changes have been affecting students. In her more than 10 years of experience, Dr. Winegard has observed a growing number of frazzled, tired, and distracted students enter her classroom and, in that time, she's developed a trusted framework for keeping increasingly distracted students engaged.

Her method also involves a lot less technology than you'd think.

1. Know the Science, Teach The Science

Understanding the science behind distractions is something educators and students will benefit from, she says. One book Dr. Winegard recommends is Mind Change by neuroscientist Dr. Susan Greenfield. Diving into in-depth studies and analyses, Mind Change explores how technology is changing the human brain, and especially how it's affecting the minds of young people who have not known a world without the internet. 

More great books that explore similar themes include Dr. Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation and Dr. Larry Rosen's The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.

Providing her class with this sort of background knowledge and supporting evidence is something that Dr. Winegard makes sure to do for her students, believing it helps better prepare them for class and their future. "Forewarned is forearmed," she says.

2. Establish a Tech-Free Zone

In support of the science she shares with her students, Dr. Winegard establishes a tech-free zone in her classroom. She argues there's nothing more effective than asking students to put the cell phone down and the laptop away in order to stay present.

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But she doesn't police her students or take technology away; she simply sets out her expectations in her syllabus, where she outlines what's deemed as acceptable technology use in her classroom. And a tech-free zone, she says, is the best method to prevent what she and many educators call the "cone of distraction".

The cone of distraction is when a student chooses to use their laptop or cell phone during class and causes other students around them to get distracted, too. The problem, Dr. Winegard says, isn't the student who got distracted in the first place — in fact, it's easier for the person operating the technology to tune in and out of the lecture than it is for those within the cone of distraction. That's the problem.

"We're all adults," she says, which is why she explains that students are free to be excused if they really need to use their phone or laptop. Importantly, however, Dr. Winegard emphasizes that students shouldn't come to class if they don't want to learn, and those who'd rather get distracted (and inevitably distract others) just shouldn't be there.

3. Prepare Students to Actively Participate In Class

"You should not be watching the professor passively," Dr. Winegard says. She argues that learning is not a passive activity like watching Netflix; rather, it requires learners to be actively involved in the process, even if they're not saying or doing very much.

"Learning is challenging — you have to be ever-present for it. Students need to come prepared to be in the moment, to be mindful, to expend energy. They need to come prepared for how hard this is going to be."

That's why Dr. Winegard lets her students know to be prepared to be called on, to take good notes, or to step away from their desks for facilitative activities. She emphasizes the importance in setting out these expectations because, she believes, students have become more accustomed to passive consumption — much thanks to TV, social media, and other digital media millennials use every day.

4. Encourage Hands-on Learning

To keep students actively involved in learning, Dr. Winegard recommends a highly facilitated classroom where students are prepared to be put on the spot. She emphasizes that all students learn best from doing, even visual learners, and so she employs facilitated techniques that require the student to step away from their space, their laptop, and their phone.

She also adds that physical note-taking is a big part of her learn-by-doing mantra. Even if it feels less active, she says, handwritten notes require more thought and input than typing out the lecture verbatim. There's also significant research which supports that students who handwrite their notes are usually more successful than those who type them. (Another good reason for a tech-free-classroom, too.)

5. Encourage Sleep

Not in class, of course. Dr. Winegard tells me a story of one of her professors who told students to sleep with their textbook beneath their pillow to retain information. When she asked him why, she remembers her professor saying, "What I didn't care about is that you kept studying, what I did care about was whether you got enough sleep."

She recalls students who've come to her class under-slept, over-caffeinated, frazzled, distracted by their technology, and unable to focus. "That's not a learner," she says. The brain-science expert urges that students need a good night's sleep to retain the information they learned that day, and for their hard-working brains to undergo what she calls a thunderstorm of electrical activity while sleeping.

"It's when learning really happens," she says of sleep, an important activity when new ideas and experiences from our day can coalesce and intermingle. She emphasizes that technologies and devices that disrupt a restful sleep can inhibit this key developmental process.

Why Should Professors Care?

Unprecedented change and innovation in humanity has created a lot of stress, anxiety, and confusion in our brains, especially for young students in college or university. Lack of sleep, highly distracting technologies, large class sizes, and a culture that's become accustomed to passive and endless consumption have all made learning an even more challenging activity than it already is.

Despite all this, there's still a place for the formal classroom, Dr. Winegard firmly believes, instead of online or virtual courses. "There's a reason you come to class," she says, confidently. The classroom is a place where ideas need to be explored and expanded upon, where stories and anecdotes need room to develop, and where information is brought alive in ways an online substitute cannot achieve. 

Dr. Winegard ends with that, while technology may be changing rapidly, the human brain has not changed at all. Prepare students with that in mind.

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Dr. Brynn Winegard retains positions as Faculty at Toronto's prestigious Schulich School of Business, an Adjunct Professor at Ryerson University, and Executive Faculty in Guelph University’s College of Business and Economics. Connect with her on Twitter here.