Aagard (2016) recently studied tech distraction in class with a qualitative study of the student experience of off-task use of technology. Instead of surveys, he used qualitative methods such as participant observations and indepth interviews.

As I’ve noted in other posts, the problems in memory, productivity, and learning caused by off-task “task-switching” results from the built-in limitations of attention. If our conscious attention is taken up by the off-task tech distraction, we simply don’t – and can’t – also process the class content. Yes, we can multitask well-learned and very easy skills, but to learn new, unfamiliar or difficult, or abstract subjects we need sustained and focused concentration. On one thing at a time.

Learning and studying are “controlled processes”; we can’t study automatically. We can walk and talk at the same time (usually). But we can’t divide our attention to successfully engage in two controlled processes at the same time, to listen to and understand a lecture while attending to and answering texts or Facebook posts.  Both take conscious attention. And each of these tasks is accomplished by activating entirely different or even competing sets of past knowledge structures and memories, even different styles of discourse, to bring in different background knowledge and context. So task switching takes processing time. And then we miss the crucial information from the lecture.

Theories of attention in cognitive psychology suggest that attention can be voluntarily controlled (goal-directed, top-down) and it can be captured by unexpected stimuli. Both are involved when we try to multitask. Aagard added a third process – habitual distraction.

A student is in class, and she has every intention to pay attention to the class content, to do well in the course (voluntary goal-directed, focused attention). Her phone flashes notification of an incoming text (involuntary attentional capture). She looks, sees the text, and even though the instructor has said “No texting in class”, she picks it up to answer. Three attentional processes have been engaged:

  • Her voluntary attention was focused on the class, concentrating on understanding the developing argument the instructor was presenting.
  • Then her attention was “captured” by the unexpected (but evolutionarily compelling) flashing light
  • And then the “habitual distraction” occurs (Aagard, 2016) and the student “prereflectively” responds. It wasn’t her conscious intention, nor is it an automatic unlearned reaction – it is a learned habit to switch attention to the signal coming on the phone.

The text coming in on the phone, likely from a friend or family member she values, has a high degree of meaning (salience) to her. And she has learned a very well-ingrained habitual response, to switch attention to it, and to respond. After what for a student might be a lifetime of interacting with the device as a “playable tool”, fun and socially enhancing, rather than a work tool to use for effortful work tasks, it is just too easy to see it that way.

And the behaviours we perform to respond are just too easy. Using our devices isn’t a complicated process we need to figure out. We don’t have to think about how to access Facebook, for example. If we did, it might “wake us up” to the fact we have unintentionally shifted our attention away from the class. Instead, our attention was hi-jacked. When the technology itself becomes too easy to use,  like driving a car on an empty straight highway, it is very easy to drift off mentally. In this case, to the text or FB post or game or net surfing.

One of Aagard’s student interviewees said that: “..I’m aware that it’s wrong [to look at Facebook in class], so I try [not to], and have especially tried lately not to do it, I think it’s really hard, because it pulls you in. It’s a habit….you just go to Facebook…I can be sitting there [on Facebook] for five minutes and then suddenly think, “Whoops, what am I doing?”…” (p. 93).

The mobile device, the laptop or smartphone has an “attractive allure that pulls you in” (Aagard, 2016, p. 93). His student interviewees described their distraction in class as happening “…beneath the level of willful choices and purposeful decision” (p. 93), especially when their devices are on, the browser is open, and the off-task sites are visible.

Yes, sure, when we catch ourselves drifting off-task we can re-take control of our attention and pull it back to the study or work task. But because the device is so accessible – the laptop lid is up, the laptop is on in class and the screen is close to our faces at eye gaze level, with the keyboard at our fingertips – and the distracting sites sooo accessible – a nice sizable square in the top row – and the habit of responding is sooo deeply ingrained and easy to do, we are pulled into them before we notice we are. And it takes some time to bring us back. And in the meantime, we’ve missed the point the instructor was making.  This habitual response is pre-reflective, it occurs before conscious self-reflection and self-regulation, and the conscious executive processes that would normally direct our thinking and attention to the goal.

The students reported that they feel susceptible to the tech distraction when (as noted in a previous post) the class is too difficult, too mentally challenging.  Or when it isn’t (when it is “boring”) because it is too easy, repetitive, “I got the point, I wish she would move on”, or too long a lecture in “talking heads” mode. And that Goldilocks space between too hard and too easy is very hard for instructors to achieve, because it differs across the various students in the class because of differences in their background knowledge, abilities, and personality.

The instructors who Aagard (2016) interviewed were well aware of the challenges of keeping students’ attention, especially when teaching difficult subjects. The instructors may try to “bid for student attention” with rapidly shifting variations in class structure, inserting UTube videos, recordings, discussion groups, stories, worksheets. This may work to achieve the Goldilocks level, between too hard and too easy, for a variety of students . But not all subjects suit this “song and dance” method of teaching; some need to explore the concepts in depth to provoke a deeper understanding of them.

Other instructors institute tech breaks frequently throughout the class. It’s a good idea, but too many tech breaks and too long a break takes time away from the class. And after the break is over, students often need extra time to re-focus on the class content, as task switching can undercut the sustained attention and concentration students need to learn.

Because the sight of the laptop or tablet screen draws us in so effectively, and because students who’ve grown up with their technology as a tool for communication, connection and entertainment, not work, some instructors have an “open/closed policy”. Students are allowed to use their laptops only when the instructor requests it. (However, Aagard observed that in that case, students accessed the internet on their phones beneath the desk). Some students began this practice for themselves. Aagard asked a student why she had to close the lid – why couldn’t she just not look at her laptop screen? She replied that when it is right in front of her, if she glances at it for a second, she would be caught. She’d noticed that closing the lid took away its seductive attraction, and helped her resist the temptation.

A simple way to defeat the seduction: Turn the phone upside down – or put it away.  Leave your tablet or laptop at home or in your bag. And if you must have it on in class, close the lid.


Aagaard, J., (2015). Drawn to distraction: A qualitative study of off-task use of educational technology. Computers and Education, 87, 90-97. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2015.03.010