Mobile Devices in the Classroom: Managing Distractions

Mobile devices are an integral part of increasing number of students’ lives. This has generated mixed reactions in the higher education community. Some have focused on the shift in the way we learn enabled by smart devices while others worry about the potential for distraction for the student themselves and the rest of the class when devices including laptops are used in the classroom.

Opponents of mobile devices in the classroom point to multitude of studies that have shown multitasking to be detrimental to learning. The assumption here is that by the virtue of being always connected, students with laptops, tablets, or smartphones are always multitasking and distracted. Some instructors manage this problem by strictly implementing a policy of no devices in the classroom. Some colleges go a step ahead and block internet for some classrooms.

Although distraction due to mobile devices is a legitimate concern, we can take a more inclusive approach to the problem rather than implementing restrictions top-down.

Educate about effects of multitasking and distraction
Here are a few points you can share with your students. Multitasking:

  • Reduces attention span, learning and performance.
  • Toggling between tasks disrupts short term memory.
  • Uses a lot of working memory reducing the ability to think creatively.
  • Reduces learning for peers sitting in close proximity.

Collaboratively develop device use guidelines
If we keep in mind that college students are responsible adults or at least learning to be responsible adults rather than children that need to be disciplined, we can share the responsibility of maintaining the classroom learning environment with them. Invite students to create guidelines for the responsible use of mobile devices in the classroom.

Share tools to manage distractions
In spite of the intention to follow the guidelines, students will still flounder and need tools to help them manage distractions. We have all been there at some point or another … a Facebook or twitter notification, an incoming email alert distracting us while we should be focusing on that journal article we were trying to complete. You can share with students, the following two ways of managing distractions:

  • Block your own access to distractions: Here are some free tools that curtail access to internet or certain websites for a duration that you can specify – for iOS – selfControl; Chrome extensions – StayFocusd, Nanny
  • Limit the access distractions have to you: All social media tools have options to tweak notification settings. Mobile devices like ipads and smartphones also have their own notification settings that can be less disruptive. Encourage students to thoughtfully choose notification settings that help them keep distractions at bay.

Productive use of mobile devices by students can still be distracting to their peers. For example, the constant use of keyboard or mouse clicks can be a distraction for a person taking notes on paper or listening attentively to a presenter. Instructors with their students can come up with practical solutions that help maximize success for both students. For example Prof. Linden who teaches a large Neuroscience class, asks her students using laptops to sit on the periphery of the classroom so that they do not distract other students.

Do you or your students have any other strategies or tools you use to manage distractions while learning? Share it with us in comments below.

One thought on “Mobile Devices in the Classroom: Managing Distractions

  1. Kris Nolte says:

    Great post! If students are interested to look at the data behind their computer habits, I recommend RescueTime ( This is a powerful tool that tracks time spent on websites + apps and provides useful analytics to support productivity.

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