Managing attention and distractibility in online learning

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This article was published on APA by the Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education on September 29, 2020.

This year, as COVID-19 disrupted traditional K–12 education, even the most experienced teachers felt suddenly thrown back into their first day, or first years, of teaching. Appearing in their virtual classrooms, many teachers found themselves looking at an array of squares on a screen, some with students looking back, some with a bare desktop and chair, some missing entirely. For many, this new environment felt foreign as their go-to strategies in the classroom setting did not seem to translate readily online. As a result, teachers were left with many questions and few clear answers.

Although the existing literature specific to virtual learning environments is limited, there is a robust research base on attention, engagement, distractibility, and learning in general, much of which can be adapted and applied in virtual settings. Below, we offer research-backed answers to some of the most commonly asked questions regarding attention and distractibility in the virtual classroom.

What do attention and engagement look like in an online environment?

In face-to-face settings, teachers typically rely on perceiving and responding to overt student behaviors as evidence of their attention. In an online setting, teachers may be able to see only a student’s head and shoulders at most, which limits the information available. In these circumstances, teachers must turn to other sources of input. In their 2011 book, “Creating the Opportunity to Learn,” Boykin and Noguera offer the following description for behavioral, cognitive, and affective engagement:

Behavioral engagement is “on task behavior.” In a virtual environment, on task behavior may include students’ commenting in the chat function, asking and answering questions, seeking and providing help to peers, and participating in collaborative discussions. Cognitive engagement refers to effort aimed at understanding complex material or learning challenging skills. In a virtual environment, cognitive engagement may include students showing that they are willing and able to take on a task even if it is challenging (Corno & Mandinach, 1983), the extent to which they persist on a task regardless of its difficulty, and the strategies they employ to assist them while learning (Richardson & Newby, 2006). Affective engagement refers to students’ emotional reactions including showing interest in, curiosity about, or enjoyment of a task, communicating a positive attitude, and expressing the value, importance, or personal relevance of a task (Boykin & Noguera, 2011). When students are not affectively engaged, they are likely to show boredom, stress, or anxiety.

How do I know my students are paying attention and engaged while I’m teaching online or with online work?

How teachers know if their students are paying attention and engaged is an issue of assessment. The classroom assessment process begins with asking yourself, “What do I want to know about my students’ engagement?” To ensure representativeness, teachers can include questions on each of the types of engagement discussed previously. For example, one might ask, “Are my students persisting even when they encounter difficult work?” Or, “Do my students appear to be interested during class-wide discussions?”

After teachers establish what they want to know, the next step is to determine what might count as evidence to answer that particular question. For example, teachers may look for evidence of student persistence by observing what students do when they encounter hurdles or stumbling blocks. If students continue steadily working and adjust and adapt their plans as needed, it might serve as evidence of persistence.

Knowing what evidence to collect, however, is only half the battle. As teachers, it is also important to have a host of strategies and techniques to collect such evidence. Classroom assessment does little to affect student learning unless teachers use the information from assessment events to inform their next teaching steps or to craft feedback that moves learning forward. That is why it is imperative that teachers draw on their knowledge of the curriculum and typical learning trajectories to inform teaching and learning.

How can I structure my online teaching to best engage my students, and what strategies can I use to reengage students who are distracted?

Many of the strategies that teachers use to increase student engagement in face-to-face classrooms can also be adapted to structure online teaching. For example, it is important to recognize the types of learning for which synchronous (active online) and asynchronous (offline) modalities are advantageous and to use each modality strategically.

The synchronous format is useful for introducing new topics, discussing complex ideas and challenging work, and promoting collaborative learning and student-teacher interactions. One of the disadvantages of the synchronous format is that students might find it difficult to remain engaged for long durations, and teachers should expect the duration of engagement to drop with age—ninth-graders will be able to stay engaged longer than fifth-graders, fifth-graders longer than third-graders, and so on.

Asynchronous learning could be used to reinforce what was taught and discussed during synchronous sessions and for tasks and activities that can be self-paced and that might require more time to complete, such as long-term projects. Because students work independently during asynchronous learning, it is important to break up activities into smaller chunks as well as to vary the types of activities, such as answering questions after watching a brief video or writing a short essay after reading assigned pages of a book. Asynchronous learning also has the advantage of promoting student self-regulation and sense of control over the learning process, factors known to increase student engagement (Fredricks et al., 2004).

Finally, students are more likely to be engaged if they feel respected and valued by their teachers and peers, and if they feel that they belong to the classroom and school community. Teachers can reinforce student engagement with praise or by allowing students to do a fun activity. In addition, establishing specific times during the week when students can collaborate on a creative activity, watch a short and lighthearted video together, or just talk could go a long way to creating positive bonds and an engaged community in a virtual environment.