Creative Hacks for Increasing Student Productivity

The mind: capable of vanquishing disease and traveling the stars. An infinitely complex symphony of chemical reactions, all working together in harmony to navigate the strange, eternally fascinating world we live in. Acquired knowledge, unquestionably, is the fuel responsible for powering mankind’s ascent to the top of the food chain. In light of this, there is nothing more disheartening than watching a bright student struggle to recognize their potential.

Yet, there isn’t a single trigger of lackluster academic performance. Truth be told, it’s often the culmination of numerous variables — some controllable and others not. Even so, the fight for student engagement doesn’t have to be an uphill battle. In this piece, I will briefly examine three of the most common obstacles to student productivity, and then suggest a few tech-based solutions for tearing down these barriers to success.

Image via Flickr by Tom Woodward

Image via Flickr by Tom Woodward

Obstacle #1: Digital Distractions

As technology becomes increasingly capable of indulging our every whim, educators are forced to walk a fine line between embracing innovation and permitting off-task behavior. Not an easy predicament, as a 2013 study by the University of Nebraska illustrates, finding that the average student uses their mobile device to engage in off-task activities at least ten times a day. So then, does this mean smartphones and tablets are to be shunned completely? Obviously, the answer is a resounding no. After all, if the pace and breadth of current digital innovation is any indication, students are destined to incorporate this technology into every facet of their existence. Much like all things in life, it all boils down to balance.



Image via SelfControl.

While social media may cut through borders and cultural differences in a manner unprecedented in our history, that kind of revolutionary connection isn’t so great when it’s time to stay on task in the classroom. How is a teacher to compete against celebrity tweets, a crush who likes a Facebook status, or YouTube videos of cuddly creatures? For this reason, Self Control is an invaluable tool for educators; by allowing you to block all off-task content until a timer runs out, it forces students to take a break from the endless digital bombardment.

The true beauty of the app, of course, is that the block is irreversible. That means even if a student deletes the program entirely, they will still be unable to access restricted content until the timer expires. Note: Self Control runs exclusively on Mac. For Windows users, Focal Filter provides a suitable alternative.

Stick Pick:

Image via iTunes

Image via iTunes.

It’s suggested that on average, the typical student can digest roughly 20 minutes of lecturing before their mind starts to drift. Class discussions and question sessions can break up the monotony, but even the most well-intentioned educator can fall victim to calling on a select few students in an unfair, predictable manner. Equity sticks (popsicle sticks with student names on them) are a popular way of preventing certain students from dominating a conversation. Each stick is placed into a can, with the instructor randomly drawing one out every time they ask a question.

Stick Pick brings this concept to mobile devices, both enhancing and perfecting it. It does this by allowing instructors to customize the difficulty level of each question according to student ability. When a teacher wishes to ask a question, the app randomly selects a student in a way that ensures a fair, diverse discussion. Of course, knowing that they could be called on at any moment also provides students a strong incentive to pay attention.

Obstacle #2: Student Apathy

Image via Flickr by Gary Luong

Image via Flickr by Gary Luong

Since time immemorial, educators have been plagued by blank stares and absent-minded expressions. Truth be told, even the most well-crafted lesson plan proves useless if students are too busy gazing out the window. That said, simply getting angry and dishing out hard discipline does little to win engagement. No, truly effective teaching requires the ability to look outside yourself and empathize, factoring in all of the unique life experiences responsible for shaping the way students approach education. Of course, if that doesn’t work, the careful cultivation of parent-teacher relationships tends to do the trick.

Decode Your Students:

The idea of “learning styles” is both praised and criticized by educators. Advocates swear diagnosing educational preferences and adjusting lessons accordingly increases student engagement and productivity. On the other hand, detractors argue a lack of empirical evidence renders the effectiveness of the approach speculative at best. No matter which side of the fence you’re on, the value in determining the types of content a class is prone to enjoying cannot be denied. Considering learning style surveys are free and readily available, there’s no excuse for failing to capitalize on this concept.

North Star Smart Star Survey:

Although similar in concept to the surveys above, the unique approach taken by the North Star Smart Star Survey app warrants a distinction. After answering a series of whimsical questions, students are presented with their own personal “learning constellations.” Laid out in an easy-to-comprehend manner, all of the areas in which a student excels are prominently displayed, whereas encouragement is provided to pursue those still in need of improvement.

Aside from providing teachers an excellent snapshot of all the unique personalities that make up a classroom, these personalized learning constellations encourage students to take an active role in their academic career — reminding them that they are smart, dynamic individuals capable of reaching great heights.

Mix it Up:

Regardless of the student survey you choose to use, the next step is to incorporate that knowledge into the creation of a blended lesson plan. Let’s say, for example, you discover a large portion of your class responds favorably to auditory learning. Armed with this information, you could stream lessons on iTunes and assign them as homework, thereby providing students a convenient opportunity to learn in a comfortable way. Stacey Roshan, a calculus teacher in Maryland, witnessed drastic improvements to test scores after taking this approach.

Then again, if you’re teaching early mathematics, you could always capitalize on Academic Music — an award winning program that connects fractions to sounds, allowing children to learn core mathematics as they sing and clap along. Point is, you don’t have to sacrifice the integrity of your curriculum to make it enjoyable.

Parent Engagement:

In some scenarios, parental figures are often the only ones with the power to cure educational apathy. Harvard University confirms this assertion, with a 2012 study of 6th and 9th grade classrooms finding direct parent involvement increased homework return rates by up to 40%. Still, reaching out to a guardian can prove challenging.

If you’re lucky, they are eager to stay up to date. If you’re not, they are overly defensive and quick to make excuses. Thankfully, the pervasiveness of mobile technology allows open lines of communication to be established with relative ease. Apps like Remind 101 and platforms like Edmodo, for instance, are rapidly gaining popularity as non-intrusive methods of notifying parents of important tests and assignments – straight to mobile devices and all without requiring a phone number.

Obstacle #3: Disruptive Behavior

Image via Flickr by Teachers Business 2012

Image via Flickr by Teachers Business 2012

Whether you teach kindergartners or high school seniors, even the smallest instance of poor behavior can derail class time. Even worse, inane rude comments can create an environment that’s uncomfortable enough to drive some students out of school altogether.

Thankfully, technology allows educators to quickly defuse tense situations and nip disruptive behavior at the bud.

Silent Light:


Noise pollution can become a real concern in any classroom, especially when students are engaged in group activities. While bustling conversations can be an indication of strong engagement with class material, they can also become so loud that productivity is rendered impossible. Silent Light is designed to resolve this issue entirely.

Utilizing a decimal meter and traffic light display, the app monitors classroom noise levels and projects them in a way that’s easily recognizable by all students. Green means everyone is working at acceptable volume levels, whereas red indicates unacceptably loud behavior.

Class Dojo:



This innovative app kills two birds with one stone.  Not only does Class Dojo provide parents a snapshot of student performance, it also infuses a large amount of positive reinforcement into the classroom. This is accomplished by allowing instructors to instantly provide feedback in regards to student behavior (accessible by both students and guardians).

For example, participating in a class discussion would earn a student points, whereas a rude comment would deduct them. Keep in mind, the app is designed to encourage, not punish students. That said, parents benefit from no longer having to wait for periodical progress reports to receive updates on academic performance.


When dealing with troubled or disinterested students, it’s essential to remember that they rarely go out of their way to give you a headache. To them, the world is new and filled with excitement. When technology is implemented effectively, the classroom becomes an adaptable, inviting atmosphere; one that nurtures personal growth and allows the mind to blossom into its full potential.



  1. Jeremy

    February 18, 2015 at 8:52 am

    Nice. I love especially like the equity sticks and the North Star survey.

    This might sound crazy, but my absolute favorite technology for this is just building a website. I use WordPress, but there are lots of easy ways to make a website. I direct students to the site for the day’s class and they’re on it during the lesson. They’ll see the materials for the day, but I also throw in surveys and links to related material. In a sense, I’m giving up and saying, “I know you’re going to be on your device or tempted to be on your device during class. So, go to this site. Click on these links. Do these things if you’re not paying attention.”

    Btw, my favorite non-tech solution is to just make all the activities 3-10 minutes long. Students are too busy to have time to get distracted:)


    • Katie

      February 26, 2015 at 10:56 am


      I really like your suggestions and approach to keeping students engaged. It seems like you’re more in tune with trying to work with things as they are instead of what a lot of teachers do (pretend the ideal world is the one they exist in).

      I’m seeing the same thing happen right now in the online business world. People are so hung up on the “latest thing” that they don’t really focus on what matters which is getting the job done efficiently. The article 3 Bizarre Online Collaboration Tools You Missed has the same approach where it’s more about simple things that get the job done based on our reality instead of the ideal world the newest tools focus on with all of their extra bells and whistles.