7 Ways to Deal With Digital Distractions in Class

Some call today’s students “digital natives.” Others call them the “distracted generation.” Whichever term you prefer, it’s clear they’re both far more than labels: they capture the core conflict many of us involved in education — educators, parents, and even students — feel about the use of technology in the classroom.

To educators who embrace new technologies wholeheartedly, digital devices are a powerful tool for creating an engaged and individualized educational experience. To those that are a little more hesitant, digital devices seem more like a quick route to Instagram and Facebook — that is, to distractions that interfere with the educational experience, rather than boosting it. Most educators, however, believe both of these things at once and to varying degrees throughout the day, based on the types of classes and resources available to them, and, really, what time it is.

Within this debate, there’s only one thing that’s crystal clear: digital technology in the classroom is here to stay, whether it’s provided directly by the school or used surreptitiously by students on the sly. The question is not, “Should we allow digital devices in the classroom?”, it’s “Now that they’re here, how can we prevent digital devices from becoming a distraction?” Let’s take a look.

How to Stop Digital Distraction in Its Tracks

Photo credit: Flickr

1. Destroy the Multitasking Myth

Ask many students why they think it’s okay to text in class, and you’ll often get the answer, “But I was paying attention to lecture, I can do two things at once.” This is the classic multitasking myth in action, and it’s one that’s reinforced by adults, as we answer emails on the sidelines of our children’s soccer games, and dictate notes into a tablet while we’re whipping up dinner.

But the truth is, while multitasking may allow us to do many things, it does not allow us to do them well. The problem is, we really only have one main attentional channel, and adding another task onto the mental plate (even if it’s as seemingly negligible as texting) clogs up that channel so that you can’t do any of the tasks really well.

“But I heard what you said!” your students say, as they continue to text way. Even if that’s true, information heard is not necessarily information deeply embedded and synthesized with deeper knowledge. What’s more, what a student may perceive as excellent multitasking is often more like a quick switch between two tasks — which would be fine, except that they’re more than likely missing out on important details as their attention was momentarily turned to their phones.

If you’re having a lot of trouble with digital distractions in the classroom, it’s a good idea to tackle the myth of multitasking directly with a lesson plan on attention and focus. This lesson doesn’t have to take too long, and should encompass active learning, like having your students take this horizontal line test and seeing how they fare. For a little fun, try showing them the monkey business illusion as well.

We won’t describe what’s there, or else we’ll ruin the test for you, but we will say this: most of your students will find the video above surprising, and will see firsthand why it’s so hard to concentrate on more than one thing at a time.

2. Rethink Smartphones Bans

Some schools and teachers take the strict approach of banning devices from their classrooms entirely. While this is certainly understandable, the effectiveness of complete bans is debatable. Sure, it can cut down on texting, Instagramming, and the oh-so-annoying mid-lecture phone call, but it seriously inhibits a student’s ability to self-customize the experience by, for example, looking up a term the teacher used that they don’t understand, or Google image searching so they can translate a concept into their visual learning style. What’s more, for “digital natives,” their smartphones feel like limbs, and to cut it off can cause anxiety that is in itself distracting.

Still, that’s not to say that teachers should step back and let student texting thumbs run wild. Instead, it’s again worth devoting a lesson plan to proper technology use in the classroom, both to educate students on the deeper science of attention and to create a culture of accountability and peer pressure around good use.

Another great strategy is to do your own version of a “digital Sabbath.” Set aside one day per week upon which everyone will place their smartphones in a basket and learning will be entirely old school. This is a great time to do creative, collaborative projects, and to focus on tasks that require students to be present in a way digital devices just won’t allow for. In this way, students will still gain some of the intended benefits of a technology ban, while also feeling the autonomy and individualization that this technology promotes.

3. Write How They Read

Notice something about this article? While we’re going into depth on a number of important points, you’ll never find a long, dense block of prose. In fact, there’s much about the formatting here that resembles a (fleshed out) outline. That’s because we read differently online than we do on the printed or Kindle page. Internet readers want to scan, digging in for greater depth when something catches their eye. Come on, admit — you know you groan and/or navigate elsewhere when you open up a webpage and encounter a wall of unbroken text!

How should this affect your approach? When creating worksheets and other written material, it’s still essential to provide a wealth of meaty, complex knowledge — just break it up for your students on the page with bolded headers and bulleted lists. It can also be helpful to include a tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) list up top that summarizes what’s to come, just so that students can get in the right frame of mind before reading.

Of course, it’s even better if you can include photos in worksheets, as today’s digitally savvy students are becoming increasingly visual. And it’s better still if you can make the experience multimedia — anything to keep their attention levels high.

 4. Use Their Unique Distraction Styles to Spark Learning

You’ve heard of learning styles, but have you heard of distraction styles? If this New York Times Article, Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction, is any indication, the exact manifestation each student’s digital distraction takes can vary widely. Social butterflies, for example, could easily spend their days texting and posting to social media, while other students are all about gaming.

Is there a way to embrace that unique and attractive distraction to create a learning opportunity? An avid texter, for example, might be invited to write an entire story via text, while gamers could create a script for their very own game. Both of these kinds of projects are creative and will necessitate logical organization and development in their own right; however, perhaps more importantly, for reluctant writers, they can be used as a “bridge” exercise. That is, an exercise that engages them intuitively while allowing you as the teacher to impart fundamental lessons about argument and thesis construction, character development, descriptive writing, dialogue, and so forth. This can then be translated in a follow-up exercise into more traditional essay and fictional writing that a student will be required to master for the Common Core and other standards.

Keep in mind that some students may not have a favorite kind of digital distraction, and may instead turn to their phones as a means of tactile stimulation to engage a wandering mind. In that case, you might try swapping their phone for a pen and paper and encouraging them to doodle. No matter what approach you take, the takeaway here is that your solution to digital distraction should be as individualized as your approach to teaching.

 5. Don’t Post Everything Online

Students may lobby hard to receive a copy of your lecture notes or presentation slides before class, but resist the urge to make these easily accessible. By all means, provide a skeleton for them to fill in, but students should have an incentive to pay attention in class, and having a copy of detailed lecture notes in front of them will remove all incentive, sending them back to their phones for something a little more engaging. Give them purpose in the classroom.

 6. Create Opportunities for Curiosity Outside the Digital Space

There’s a reason that students are so often distracted by their digital devices: they’re interesting. But who’s to say learning outside the device can’t be just as compelling?  Engage students with projects that challenge them and give them creative autonomy. Use the great outdoors as your classroom for the day. Invite guest lecturers to mix things up. Create opportunities for hands-on learning. Teach via student-lead, discussion-based learning, rather than lecturing all day. With a little willingness to shake things up, you can be just as compelling as those devices.

7. Teach Grit

All of this said, it’s important to remember that one of the biggest draws of digital devices is that they provide instant gratification. While all of the suggestions so far recommend embracing whatever the student and the device bring to the classroom, it also impresses the urgency of teaching grit to ensure students also know how to dig down deep. In fact, if there’s any way students are going to learn to focus and control their impulses both on their devices and outside of them, grit is especially crucial and worth both lesson time, coaching and follow-up.

Why This Matters

The brains of children and adolescents are dynamic, and digital devices appeal to their thinking style intuitively. This is something schools can and should embrace, while also accounting for the potential pitfalls, like having their students become so habituated to stimulation that they can’t focus on lower-stimulation tasks, or becoming so keyed up they can no longer sleep. Finding a middle ground is just as important to teachers and parents as it is to students, who may be aghast when their access to device is regulated, but who regularly complain in surveys that peer misuse of digital devices is distracting, and express a desire to have more control over their own device addictions.

No matter what solutions you implement in your classroom, remember that we are still in a relatively nascent era. We are all guinea pigs, and it’s up to us to determine what the new rules and best practices will be. So try out one technique, and try out another if the first one doesn’t work. Embrace the future while keeping your core teaching principals in mind. In the end, it’s good teaching that will determine whether or not technology in the classroom is an incredible force for individualization and engagement or simply a distraction.



  1. Christy

    November 19, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    This is very timely. I am teaching tech courses in blended classroom style this year and have started to have the issue of distracted students, particularly with online streaming music services and You Tube. They are on the computer 95% of the time for their class. I am currently trying to figure out how to deal with YT being accessible on student computers. If anyone has insight/startegies on class management on this area, I would love to hear it.

    • Leah Levy

      November 20, 2014 at 7:40 am

      I would love to hear this too — definitely seems worthy of another article! We would love for you to visit us again later in the year to let us know what tricks you’ve found.

  2. Wayne

    November 24, 2014 at 3:35 am

    It is tricky…
    If the school has a firewall through which the children connect, restrictions can be put in place. If it’s BYOD and they have their own 3G connectivity, your hands are tied and then it comes down to acceptable use policies. Change your presentation style to teaching from the back of the class. Get the boss to get you and ipad and apple tv. The ipad then becomes the whiteboard/smartboard, and you do the lesson WITH the kids.

    • Leah Levy

      November 25, 2014 at 7:16 am

      Thanks for sharing! I think one of the trickiest things when it comes to restriction is knowing ahead of time what your students are going to need and when. I know I’ve tried blocking certain things, only to discover midway through it would have been useful to someone else halfway through the lesson. I guess it’s a constantly evolving battle. Interesting ideas here to try out!


    November 24, 2014 at 11:06 am

    I love the monkey business video (and felt so proud of myself until I got to the end of the video). I think it’s probably the most important point you raise and one that applies to every lesson and teaching scenario. I often use the “clean desk” approach whereby everything is removed from the desk (phones, tablets, exercise books, coursebooks, whatever) while we do a particular activity or exercise. When that’s over, and according to what activity comes next, the class can bring back electronic devices and use them as appropriate. I do get complaints but the monkey business video proves the point and it’s something I’ll use in class soon. ^Jenny

    • Leah Levy

      November 25, 2014 at 4:37 pm

      Glad you enjoyed the “monkey business.” It’s so obvious once you see it, but so amazingly not so the first time around. I love clean desk policies too — excellent suggestion. Hope your students enjoy the video!

  4. Alicia

    November 30, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    I never thought of embracing their “distraction styles” as a way of learning. But it makes sense! I also love the piece about the way we read online and how we should aim to create documents in that format for our students.

    • Leah Levy

      December 3, 2014 at 9:30 am

      Glad you found this helpful, Alicia!