Students in a first-year journalism class. Millennials often want to have two or more screens open. (Peter Martyn photo)

Attraction … distraction … seduction?

Millennials confess their digital distractions — and some ways to overcome them. If the visual web is rendering reading passé, there may be a simple way to help.

I suspect many profs wrestle with classes of students who seem to be more into their mobile devices than into classroom learning. Millennials’ digital distractions and their difficulty completing assigned readings are certainly a frequent topic of conversation, and occasionally despair, among my colleagues.

A few years ago, I even wondered out loud whether it would be possible to electronically jam classroom WiFi and mobile signals. There was little enthusiasm for the idea, and administrators wisely nixed it. Besides, a significant part of the curriculum I teach involves multimedia-multiplatform journalism. And today, that means mobile: this year, “39 of the top 50 digital news websites have more traffic to their sites … coming from mobile devices than from desktop computers,” according to Pew’s State of the News Media 2015 report. It would be unseemly to ban the very category of devices our students create content for.

Yet, as NYU professor @Clay Shirky wrote in 2014, student distraction seems to have worsened year by year. I first entered a classroom (to teach adults, that first semester) six months before the iPhone was unleashed — er, released — in June 2007. The following year there were a fair number of laptops in my undergrad classes, but you could count the iPhones and BlackBerrys on the fingers of one hand.

Now, eight years later, 100 per cent of my students have smartphones and many bring laptops as well — to classrooms where the main feature is bank after bank of desktop computers. Staying attentive to what’s going on in the real world is a challenge many students admit wrestling with, along with the traditional post-secondary diversions of sex, drugs and rock‘n’roll.

And no wonder. Back in 2012, researchers at the University of Chicago’s Booth Business School conducted a study that was interpreted as showing that social media is more tempting than sex or tobacco.

And a 2015 Pew research study found that 76 per cent of Americans with cellphones “rarely” or “never” turned them off, leading to disruption of “long-standing social norms about when it is appropriate for people to shift their attention away from their physical conversations and interactions with others towards digital encounters with people and information.”

Iranian-Canadian blogger @Hossein Derakhshan (aka “the Blogfather”) notes that today’s social web discourages following hyperlinks and in-depth reading. He writes that the algorithms that refine for commercial ends the results we see when we search the web, based upon what we and our friends have clicked on, show us “less and less text to read … and more and more video to watch, more and more images … Are we witnessing a decline of reading on the web in favour of watching and listening?” he asks.

Furthermore, the Pew study mentioned previously found that “[f]ully 98% of young adults [aged 18 to 29] used their cellphone for one reason or another during their most recent get-together with others.” From my observation, that includes class time.

Like Prof. Shirky, I’m reluctant to infantilize my students. I’ve tried patrolling the classroom, ordering phones turned off and Facebook pages shut down. But that makes me feel uncomfortably like my sixth-grade teacher Miss Cline, with her long wooden pointer that would crack down on the desk — and sometimes the digits — of any miscreant pupil caught passing scrawled notes. Yet years of distraught, middle-of-the-night emails from students asking about material covered in detail in that morning’s class, is evidence that distraction is harming students’ ability to learn.

Thus, it demands a solution.

It was with growing interest, then, that I read a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about University of Washington professor David M. Levy’s “Information and Contemplation” course, in which author Marc Parry describes the professor’s “mind-training” techniques for helping students become aware of their digital distractions. It stuck in my mind for weeks after I’d passed it along to colleagues.

Creating some kind of simple feedback loop for students seemed as if it might offer a way to have them acknowledge — to themselves — distractions that I doubted most even noticed. It needed to be simple to administer, and to conform with the first-year course in Online Journalism I was teaching.

But the rewards were tantalizing: If the experiment were successful, almost all the students in their first year of college would potentially benefit. With encouragement and input from a supportive program coordinator, I decided to make the final assignment of my Winter 2015 course a test bed for change.

The experiment

The instructions to the 63 students read, “For this final assignment, you are to study yourself!” They were given a choice of two longform pieces to read. The subject matter needed to align with the journalism program, so I chose descriptive pieces about journalists. Sports fans were offered Alanna Kelly’s “Prize Fighters,” from the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Everyone else got a Toronto Life piece, Jason McBride’s “How Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke brought the stodgy newspaper back to life.” Both are between 3,000 and 4,000 words, and feature engaging anecdotes as well as analysis. I provided the stories on paper — there were groans when I handed out the thick sheaves — and required the results of their analysis to be handed in on paper too.

(I was well aware of the irony of expending so much pulpwood in a course that focuses on the digital delivery of news, but paper remains a wondrously reduced-distraction medium for reading, as @William Powers’ “Hamlet’s Blackberry” eloquently points out. And these students badly needed to read.)

They were instructed to spend 30 minutes a day reading, for five consecutive days in a span of two weeks. They were to log their distractions — and their emotional and physical reactions to those distractions — on five log pages I provided. Some students, I knew from the beginning, would be able to read the stories easily within the 30-minute time frame. These I encouraged to reread the material each day to see if they picked up more detail and nuance. Others barely made it to the end after five days of slogging.

[The community college where I teach draws from a diverse population. The student body has a significant proportion of people who are the first in their families to attend a post-secondary institution; some are the first to have finished high school. Many have grown up in homes where English is not the first language, and some in families where women are not encouraged to seek higher education. Ages range from late teens to late twenties, and some students’ economic straits mean they have to work 20 or more hours a week to support themselves. Although there is a residence, most students commute to the suburban campus.]

After the students in my experiment had completed their five days of reading, they were to write an essay consisting of a brief but thorough synopsis of the article (to serve as a rough gauge of their understanding) and a longer reflection on what they’d observed about themselves and the measures they’d taken to eliminate interruptions and to reduce the impact of distractions on their ability to focus. The assignment included a few suggestions, such as to reread the previous days’ logs at the beginning of each reading session for feedback on common distractions they noticed, to try slow, steady breathing to calm themselves after an interruption, and to hand-write a list of unfamiliar words to look up later so they didn’t lose themselves online in mid-paragraph after encountering a new word.

The results, frankly, surprised me. First, in spite of the protests from some when I handed out the assignment, two weeks later when the students returned their papers, the vast majority said the assignment had been worthwhile and they’d learned a lot. In the largest classroom of the course, 28 students, 100 per cent handed in their logs and essays.

Digital distractions

Unsurprisingly, electronic devices were named as the main distractors — as recent Microsoft Canada attention spans research by Alyson Gausby found, 67 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds say they have a hard time focusing on tasks, and 77 per cent of that group report that when their attention wanders, the first thing they do is reach for their phones.

The principal subset of distraction my students described seemed to be social media such as Facebook and Twitter, but checking email and receiving telephone calls were also common. Several mentioned a compulsion to look up definitions of unfamiliar words online. Other interruptions noted were boredom (a big one for students who weren’t engaged with the subject matter), daydreaming, friends dropping by, dogs and cats demanding attention, noisy neighbours or uproar in common areas where they were trying to study.

Some reported they were beset by unquenchable thirst, incessant hunger, fidgeting, seating or posture problems, etc. Location was important to many — a comfortable room without interruptions for some, but others found quiet disturbing and reported preferring the white noise of a crowded library or learning commons, or even of a television turned down low.

Intriguingly, more than one student reported being distracted by the sound of early-spring ice cream trucks playing their evocative melodies. And lack of sleep was a common theme.

Texts, phone calls

The ubiquity of mobile devices was clear from the essays. “I’m a 21-year-old girl; texts are incoming on the daily,” SG wrote. “This, at first, was a welcomed distraction. I convinced myself that I had to answer the message, or it would be rude otherwise. The buzz from my phone was startling and annoying until I saw who had texted me [then] one text would turn into a conversation. In the following days, I made the decision to keep my phone in another room; it was only for half an hour, I survived.”

“I know I should not be checking my phone every time it goes off, but it feels like I’m going to miss something important when I don’t pick up the phone,” wrote JM. He reported a similar problem with his laptop: “Even when I try to use the computer for work related reasons I still tend to forget what I was doing and veer off to sites that are not work related. For example when I tried to Google a word that I don’t understand 20 minutes later I will be on social media sites like Facebook.” Another, DW, described how his “short break from reading the article turned out to be a trip down the internet video rabbit hole known as YouTube.”

Not only were smartphones the number one culprit, but some students described physical effects tantamount to withdrawal when they tried to avoid them. “With each interruption I found myself anxious. I realized how addicted I was to my phone. Each time it would go off, I could feel my heart rate intensify,” observed KA. “I got much more accomplished on the day that I shut it off, but id [sic] find myself wondering if anyone was trying to get a hold of me.”

Others reported emotional reactions to the interruptions themselves: annoyance, anger, frustration — sometimes targeted at others, but frequently they chastized themselves for letting themselves be distracted.

Several students were perceptive enough to realize that not only can a distraction halt the reading process, but there is a lag time afterwards that often multiplies the effect. KA logged a series of interruptions from her phone vibrating. “All together I only lost seven minutes in the half hour segment,” she wrote. But “[a]lthough I would resume reading pretty quickly after getting distracted actually getting into the flow again would take much longer … Each time I did get distracted, even if it were for a minute, it would take me a substantially longer time to get back into the flow of reading. I wasn’t fully able to concentrate until my heart rate reduced and I was in a distraction free environment.”

What the puck?

There were some surprising revelations, apparently. “When reading the article for the first day, I was watching a hockey game. I thought to myself, what better way to read an article about sports than watching a sport?” SJ wrote. “As shown on my log, it was a terrible idea.[1] I spent the first 15 minutes focusing on the wonderfully produced opening montage … When I finally began to read the article, the game had a breakthrough moment when the referee made an awful call. My first instinct was to go on social media and see what other fans thought about the missed-call. The [sic] created another distraction, and rather quickly changed my mode from calm to frustrated/pissed.”

Not being engaged with the subject matter is fairly common among first-year students who are unsure whether they’re in the right program for their temperament. And that can make distraction desirable. As SL wrote, “This exercise definitely taught me that it’s much easier to get distracted when you’re not interested. I would find myself looking at my phone, hoping someone, anyone, would contact me so I could take a break from this boring reading.” The same student also noted, “I’d rather learn by doing not reading.”

A different student (also with the initials SL) said, “One big thing I’ve learned about myself is that I try to make distractions so that I can get out of reading.” Ultimately she left her phone in another room, and was able to complete the assignment. TH reported that “[i]t felt like punishment to sit and read for half an hour, but I powered through it anyway … I have never enjoyed reading (with the exception of sports articles or a twitter feed), and I probably never will.”

Some comments were perceptive even though their authors had been unable to deal with the source of their distractions. “During this assignment, I found it quite easy to be distracted but that’s how I am when I typically read,” wrote AA. “Only on the fourth day was I able to fully read the article without any distractions. A lot of times the distractions were avoidable and although I did read the previous days [sic] notes, I still made the same mistakes. My phone was definitely one of the biggest distractions … One thing I should’ve done more frequently was to turn it off and maintain willpower and focus.”

A young man, RW, admitted to having difficulty sitting to read for an extended spell. He wrote that he found himself “getting quite antsy and anxious if I were to sit down for longer than forty minutes at a time. My palms would immediately become clammy and my toes would start to clench and unclench themselves.”

Peer pressure was noted by several as an issue. SS said she “noticed that I read with fewer interruptions when I am by myself and not around a group of people and/or noise.” Although she observed that “[c]onditioning my mind to focusing on what I am doing became easier with time,” on her final day, “[m]y boyfriend was in the room at the time of reading which made me feel rushed or as if someone was waiting on me. This caused me to lose focus easy [sic] …” On a positive note, she realized that “every time I re-read the article I would find something that I didn’t filter the first time reading.”

Back to the flip phone?

“This exercise made it clear that I do need to put a good deal of effort into controlling my thought process as I attempt to be productive and get work done,” wrote BA. “[T]he fact that I couldn’t really silence my unrelated thoughts for focused reading for a half hour was a bit disturbing and reminds me of how long it’s been since I’ve actually sat down to read a book without having music blaring or my phone nearby for a momentary distraction … To combat this, I put my phone away entirely during the last reading session and as such, there were not phone-based interruptions.

“For my own personal sanity’s sake,” BA added, “I’ve also considered stealing one of my dad’s old flip phones from the early 2000s, the type that are so crummy and slow that you don’t even want to use them unless you absolutely have to. This would greatly increase my productivity as cell phone usage is undoubtedly the biggest of my concerns when it comes to being distracted.”

Of course not all the reactions were what I’d hoped for.

One student’s first log entry noted she was distracted by music in her headphones. “I felt annoyed that I had to read the article,” LR wrote. “The music was making me lose focus on the content.” She went on to describe restlessness, and feeling “the need to sing and practice dancing because this [assigned reading] is boring.” But her Day 3 entry was the eye-opener for me: “I can’t read and listen to the teacher at the same time.” Then on Day 4: “The teacher was talking and I couldn’t focus or read properly.” (Okay, I checked. Neither comment coincided with my class.) I think she summed up her issues when she logged a distraction she described as “The music in my ear” which she said “makes me feel better and I don’t feel like reading at the moment.”

Another student, LN, wrote that “[c]omputers have since taken over education, so students now do not have to read from textbooks anymore [sic].”

But those last two students were outliers among the 56 papers and completed logs that were turned in. Evidence of improved concentration was gratifying when it was reported.

“From day one until day five, I observed that the things that distracted me changed over the period,” LW wrote. “On day one, I would always check my phone even if I were certain I didn’t have a message waiting for me. Since I checked my phone so often, I had to re-read a sentence or paragraph, which became frustrating … By day three, I noticed after reading for 30-minutes, I didn’t check my phone once whoever, [sic] I still had distractions. I noticed my mind wandering off while I was reading wondering if my phone was getting constant text messages since I wasn’t looking at it … I felt myself having to re-read certain areas in the article because my full attention wasn’t on reading.”

‘What works for me’

Several students came to conclusions demonstrating a maturity I’d like to believe will help them going forward.

From CA: “In the end I learnt that what works for me is a quiet distraction free (no cellphones no laptops) environment. Without the noise, the people and the electronics focusing was not difficult at all.

From ND: “Simple things like turning my phone’s volume down and turning off the television were effective changes that helped me focus. Having an adequate amount of sleep and food was fairly crucial to my success in focusing.”

From LW: “My problem is, I like knowing what is going on in social media. I need to see what celebrities are saying on twitter or knowing exactly what my friends or boyfriend are doing every second. After noticing [this] I was able to realize that I can always check my phone once I’m done. I let my friends know … that I would be busy. I put my phone on airplane mode to make sure no updates would appear on my screen. By doing this, I didn’t even think about looking at my phone or changing tabs to go on Facebook … By day four when I had absolutely no distractions made me realize how much longer it takes to get an assignment done while I’m distracted. My 30-minute reading didn’t turn into 45-minutes [that day] and I liked getting my work done at the right pace and effectively … I feel more relaxed without checking my phone because I’m more confident in my work. This is because I’m focusing on one thing, my school work.

From BA: “I obviously wasn’t able to change as much as I would’ve like to during the exercise but over the five day period I was certainly made aware of several things that I need to keep in mind to improve my workflow for future projects as well as my own personal endeavors and productivity.”

Feedback helps

From RW: “Over the course of the week I found my ability to focus getting better and better … opening the log book before commencing the reading for the day gave me a point of reference to always go back to if my mind strayed off course.”

“What really did interest me in this assignment was how much my body seemed to fight back against something so simple as reading an article for an assignment,” KK observed. “I feel as if the act of monitoring my distractions also served to increase some of those distractions in the same way as trying not to think of a purple elephant will inevitably make you think of a purple elephant. Distractions seem to be my purple elephant then, but the act of logging those distractions also provided a tool for minimizing them.

From JK: “In theory I don’t care about the selfies everyone is posting, or if someone liked a status I posted last week, and why my brain still somehow manages to think of Facebook when I’m in the middle of a reading baffles me. It’s like a sick societal form of OCD that has been created in today’s generation. Verdict: turn off all electronics while attempting to do work. Although this is easier said than done, considering 90% of work is now done on a computer, only a click away from Facebook or Twitter. I guess it’s really about self-control and remembering where our priorities lay. [sic… All in all, this exercise was in my opinion a really important one … It really opened my eyes to the countless distractions one faces all the time, and more importantly made me consciously think about how to rid of them [sic] and extend my productivity to its fullest … I must truly say that I have much to learn still, but am at least now conscious, and believe that is the first step of improvement.”

A challenge

Finally, one student challenged the thesis of my experiment: While admitting that negative distractions “out-weighed the positives almost 4:1 in my distraction log,” TB reported that he regularly went online to look up names referenced in the article he was reading. In effect, he was creating his own hyperlinks to background material (something we study in the course). “Technically speaking these are distractions to my reading but if you ask me, each of these incidents enhanced my understanding of the material in their own way. So I am hesitant to call these distractions and more inclined to call them diversions,” he wrote. “I feel that the younger generations have adjusted to the level of distractions and have found an effective method of multitasking. Personally I don’t think that distractions are a bad thing, I am under the impression that distractions can help the reader take a second to collect their thoughts and think critically about the information being processed. In summation this exercise showed me that distractions are not something that can be avoided but instead something that can be harnessed to improve the overall reading experience.”

I have to admit, TB makes a persuasive point — with the caveat that considerable recent research indicates that those who believe they’re multitasking, particularly when using computers, are actually splitting their attention between two jobs, and therefore doing both less efficiently than if they focused on one at a time.

Conclusion

This experiment in student self-analysis has provided a revealing anecdotal glimpse into the world of a generation that has grown up where electronic devices displaying text, images, audio and video are more prevalent than television, radio, books, magazines, newspapers and journals. This is the future we, as instructors, already live in, and it’s our duty to help students learn the difficult art of focusing. It is my hope, then, that simple feedback — assigning students to log specific incidents of distraction and to read over their notes as the assignment progresses — can help many of them control unproductive behaviour and improve their study skills. Further research should include wider application of the experiment, with quantified rather than merely anecdotal results, and an investigation of how long the observed feedback effects last. Given a large enough sample size, it might be possible to correct for biases such as those introduced by the student subjects’ family education level and their secondary school environments.

[1] All italic emphasis in this article was added by the author.

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