James M. Lang is a Professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College in Worcester, MA. He is the author of five books, most recently Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Lang writes a monthly column on teaching and learning for The Chronicle of Higher Education; his work has been appearing in the Chronicle since 1999. He is the recipient of a 2016 Fulbright Specialist Grant (Colombia) and the 2019 Paul Ziegler Presidential Award for Excellence in Scholarship at Assumption College.

Smartphones and laptops have always been seen as a distraction: a concern that’s being magnified as learning environments increasingly depend on digital delivery. James Lang, Professor of English at Assumption College, thinks it’s time to change the narrative. Drawing upon lessons from his new book—Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It—Lang offers practical tips for instructors who want to ensure their students don’t check out during class.

Your new book, “Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It,” comes out in October. What was the motivation for writing this book?

The problem of distraction in the classroom has been one of the major issues faculty members have faced in the last few years. It occurred to me there’s an opportunity here for us to push education forward if we can use that problem to think about what we’re doing, and consider the best ways to reach today’s students.

My goal in writing the book is to try and get faculty to step away from thinking about distraction as a problem they have to solve, and instead think about, “How do I cultivate the attention of my students? And what creative strategies can I use to help my students pay attention to the course material and one another?”

In the book, you delve into the science behind why we struggle to focus. Why is it important for instructors to have this context?

There’s something important about understanding the history of distraction, and something important about understanding the biology behind it. Understanding the history helps you step back and say, “look, it’s not just the devices in the room that are causing students to be distracted. We’ve always been distracted.” This is just the nature of human experience, to feel that we’re not able to focus as much as we would like, and for as long as we would like. Technology intensifies the problem, but it’s not really the source of the problem. The source of the problem is the human brain.

That leads us to the biology piece, which helps us recognize that we have these brains that like novelty. They’re built to search for new information and to learn, and as a result of that, our brains are always looking to see what’s next. Today’s technology is really good at taking advantage of this.

If I’m faced with a really challenging cognitive task, and it’s not something that I’ve decided is really important to me, the choice between that and looking at something easy, like Twitter, which gives me quick little bursts of satisfaction—I’m going to choose the bursts of satisfaction. As teachers, we can do a lot more to make the learning environment one that cultivates attention, and rewards and supports attention.

Scrolling through your news feed when you have nothing else to do isn’t being distracted in your estimation. So how exactly do you define ‘distraction?’

Distraction means doing something that interferes with your goals. If I’m trying to achieve something that is either important to me or that I need to do in order to fulfill a job, distractions are the things that get in the way of me pursuing and achieving those goals. A lot of us know how to manage our distractions through the workday. I can get up and do one thing for five to 10 minutes, and then I’ll come back refreshed. The challenge of technology is it makes it easier to go down these rabbit holes that go on and on.

The longer you try to pay attention to something, the more challenging it becomes. It stems from two things:

  1. Our attention fatigues over time. That’s a fundamental feature of our attention systems. At a certain point, you need to stop.
  2. Change renews attention. If you leave the task that’s causing you to slowly fatigue, you can do something else, and then come back to it—now your attention has been renewed. We want to see how we can use that to our advantage, not only in our work lives, but in the classroom.

What role does goal setting play in our ability to maintain focus?

If you have a strong commitment to a goal, you’re probably more likely to stay focused on it. In a classroom setting, you want to make the goal clear to students—or you want to give them the opportunity to form their own goals. That’s the place a lot of educational theorists will go: give students the chance to formulate their own goals, which is good to a certain extent.

The problem you run into, especially at the beginning of class, is that students don’t even know what the goal possibilities are. First-year students may have trouble setting a goal that will sustain them throughout the semester. Initially, we have to do a decent amount of goal setting and convincing for them. Once we get into the class a bit, then you can give students opportunities to start setting their own goals. Ideally there’s contribution from both sides.

You suggest just like having a beer or cookie, indulging in social media as a reward can have longer lasting negative effects. How so?

Going back to Aristotle, if you want to become a virtuous person, you do virtuous acts. We’re not necessarily born virtuous. If you want to be a just person, you start acting in just ways, and then you become a just person. The same is true in reverse. If you spend all your time in the company of your distractions, you’ll become a distracted person.

So, when it comes to behaviors, my rule is always this: make sure you’re doing good things. Don’t worry so much about trying to control your bad behaviors. If you love your phone, that’s great. But also make sure you walk for an hour every day without it, and spend an hour a day reading. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re doing the good things, you won’t let those bad habits win.

The middle ground is always the place to be. If you say, “I’ve got to focus for three hours and do this without a break,” that doesn’t work. It also doesn’t work to be changing every five minutes. You’ve got to find a happy medium.

You suggest that how instructors teach is often at odds with how students learn. What’s the disconnect here?

The disconnect is taking for granted that students should pay attention. What we need to think about is how we structure the class in a way that sustains someone’s attention through an extended period of time. We need to think like playwrights. What do they do to maintain attention? They have acts and scenes, there’s an intermission, the action rises and falls. At the beginning of a play, something happens that is designed to intrigue you and get you engaged in the story. I argue in the book that we have to think both like a playwright and like a poet. You have to think like a playwright in terms of the structure. You have to think like a poet in terms of “what’s going to reawaken the attention of my students,” or awaken the attention of my students to this particular content for the day.

You have to think like a playwright in terms of the structure. You have to think like a poet in terms of “what’s going to reawaken the attention of my students,” or awaken the attention of my students to this particular content for the day.

How should instructors adjust their teaching to better support how students learn?

  1. Cultivate community in the classroom: Attention begets attention. If I pay attention to you, you’re more likely to pay attention to me. Be more attentive to the community in the classroom, and try to help students be more attentive to one another. Making community and attention values in the classroom has to start from the very beginning and has to be sustained.
  2. Be deliberate in choosing learning exercises: When I’m lecturing to students about some difficult new content, it needs to be alternated with something that’s going to give students a bit of a break, and let them engage in a task. Then we can come back to another piece that might be more cognitively challenging. Think deliberately about, “How is attention going to wax and wane throughout this period? And how can I structure and order the events in ways that will keep them focused?”
  3. Intersperse ‘signature attention activities’ throughout class time: I argue for what I call signature attention activities—the things that teachers should have planned throughout the semester. You’re going to get a slump in a 75-minute class. Forty-five minutes in, what are you going to do to get people reawakened for the last half hour? These are the moments that are going to re-energize the class, because attention flags not only in the class period, but throughout the semester. You need to think about the big picture as well.

Do you have any practical guidance for instructors who are concerned about students tuning out in a virtual classroom?

I would encourage people to think about their own experiences. How long were you able to sit in a Zoom meeting before you started thinking, “What else is going on here?” At what point did you start to zone out? Think, “All right, 20 minutes in, we’re going to do our breakout rooms.” And then at what point do those start to become less and less productive?

Consider where your attention wanes. If you’re creating videos for your students, don’t make a 45-minute lecture video. Research shows that students will watch videos up until the nine to 12 minute range. At that point, it’s like falling off a cliff. Instead, make three 15-minute videos, because you’re much more likely to get students to watch them. You can always find 15 minutes at some point in the day.

Do you have any tips on technology use post-pandemic?

Since so much of our lives outside of the learning experience is driven by and mediated through technology, we want to think about how the classroom can be a space of balance. Technology can be used to support student learning, but other times we should be focused on engaging with one another. We also want to make sure that then we’re giving students something else, which is, “We’re going to talk to one another here.” Or “You’re going to do this task, and I’m going to slowly guide you through it.”

For more resources and practical tips on how to navigate through distraction in your virtual classroom, pre-order James Lang’s book, “Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It,” set for release on October 20, 2020.

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