April 28, 2023

Distracted students, distracted faculty

Posted by Laura Guertin

“…we need to turn our heads away from distraction and toward attention. Our challenge is not to wall off distractions; our challenge is to cultivate attention, and help students use it in the service of meaningful learning.  —  Preface (xiv) of Distracted (Lang, 2020)

In February 2020, the book Distracted – Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It was published. There’s no way author James Lang would have known that the timing of this release would coincide with a global shift in how faculty teach and how students learn. But after the distractions I’ve seen in my classroom this past academic year, and from monitoring my own behaviors in nonstop Zoom meetings, the content presented by Lang is just as relevant.

I’ll only present some of my own thoughts and reflections after reading the book. There are plenty of detailed reviews online, linked from Lang’s website and published on the teaching/learning blogs of institutions such as University of Pittsburgh and University of Dayton. There’s also a Zoom presentation posted in YouTube where Lang discusses Teaching Distracted Minds. This topic is clearly one we are interested in addressing in our classrooms! – and not a new topic for faculty to discuss, with plenty of articles available on this topic (such as Students distracted by tech leave professors longing for eye contact).

Lang does a good job laying out why and how humans exist in distracted lives – and we always have, paying attention to our surroundings when we walk, drive, navigate getting through an airport to our connecting gate, etc. But in the classroom, educators must not only gain the attention of students but guide them through processing and retrieval of information.

Lang suggests many approaches to involving and engaging students, ranging from having students help develop a technology policy for the syllabus, especially around mobile devices, to learning and using student names (I’ve blogged about this before – What it means to students when you can pronounce their names – and when you can’t). He encourages having flexible classroom spaces where physical barriers can be broken down and there can be fluid movement though the room to allow for community building.

The chapter on Curious Attention I found… well, curious!

“…we need to reconnect with our own questions about our discipline before we can cultivate the questions of our students – and their attention.”  —  Lang (2020, p. 133)

Lang presents examples from faculty across various disciplines, sharing different formats for how to start a class with daily questions, and how to end a class with “what questions do you have” (and not “are there any questions”).

I could continue with additional examples for classroom implementation, but while reading the book, I was also thinking about faculty training sessions and meetings. How many times are we checking our cell phone for messages/emails? Have you ever left an online professional development workshop because you were going to be put into a breakout room and would rather have stayed distracted by whatever you were doing? (*guilty here!) Granted, pre-pandemic, I would see colleagues grading papers during Faculty Senate Meetings. But what if we could also change the approach during faculty sessions, instead of being all seated in a (Zoom) room listing to committee report after committee report? Why not work to eliminate some of these distractions here as well? Cultivating attention in our professional communities could help us generate even more energy and efforts to ensuring our students have just as an engaging experience, leading to attention and learning.