I’ve been involved in an observation scheme at UCL. So far, I’ve watched 4 hours of lectures and two hours of seminars run by one teaching fellow at the institution. The program is about observing different teaching styles, but I’m learning more about the undergraduate students sat around me.

I’m writing about this because I have a confession. I’ve discovered my ability to read is deteriorating. I don’t mean comprehension but the actual, singular process of following words to construct a broader idea or argument. I cannot hold my attention for a chapter easily. A page is quite often a challenge. My mind shifts gear like a F1 driver, and I’m thinking about something else or checking my phone.

It will come as no surprise that almost every student (me included) checks their mobile phone at one time or another during the class. I’ve been observing how distracted people seem to be by their technology.  A study has been done which shows that students who don’t check their phone write 62% more notes than those who do. When assessed, they scored higher marks.

The use of the smart phone by students (myself included) is undeniably changing how do university, particularly lectures. It’s probably the case that the 286 words preceding these have not been able to command your focus entirely. You have probably switched tabs to check something else. That’s fine, so did I while I was writing it. There is evidence to suggest that our attention spans have withered to a paltry eight seconds, down from twelve seconds in 2000. This troubles me, because most lectures tend to last longer than eight seconds.

Some might say this just shows we are now better at multi-tasking. Evidence from a Microsoft study suggested we are getting better at doing many things at once in the age of smartphones, tablets and ubiquitous computing. But evidence from people who don’t sell smartphones or rely on ubiquitous computing seems less sure: what you are really doing is switching from doing one task to another and doing them all poorly. Even Microsoft admit we are losing our ability to sustain our attention on one thing. Either way, I personally think this loss of focus on a single task does not outweigh my newfound ability to find a gif of Dory on Twitter while buttering toast.

Back in the lecture theater, I set myself the (single) task of watching the students around me. By far, the most distracted students are those on laptops. They get distracted in two different ways.

1.      Deeply engaged in a task which is not listening to the lecturer. I have observed students shopping, editing covering letters for job applications, browsing the modules of a potential master’s course, playing a computer game (which I think was League of Legends) and even, impressively, shopping for lingerie. Often, no effort is even made to make notes nor use the laptop in any way that could be described as aiding the learning. They will entirely forgo 15 minute chunks while engaged in a task, before perhaps turning attention back to the lecture, or finding something else to be occupied with.

2.      Other students might be making notes in a word document but they will flit from this task to the Powerpoint slides (which is bizarre, as they are often on the projector at the front of the lecture theatre), checking Whatsapp chat and Facebook, or sometimes Moodle and emails.

Paradoxically, I feel it is the second group that may suffer more. When it comes to an exam or essay, they can feasibly self-delude themselves into thinking they were concentrating. Group one, unless they believe in some form of intellectual osmosis, have less to hide behind, and can probably better reconcile themselves with the fact they simply weren’t paying attention.

But here is the rub: I have not found these lectures boring. They have been consistently dynamic. In my six hours of observation there has been a guest speaker, audience interaction via biscuit taste testing and in the seminars, a competition to see who can create the sturdiest armchair out of balloons.

It seems to me the phones and laptops drastically reduce a student’s ability to attempt to find the content interesting. A mobile phone offers snapchat and games much more effectively than a laptop, but the laptop makes browsing Amazon or Moodle much easier. Caught between these two mediums, even less time is spent listening. The biscuit taste test made little sense if you hadn’t listened to the theory before. The guest speaker’s anecdotes were confusing without their over-arching argument that had preceded them. Glancing up from their screens, students were able to confirm that what was being said or done at this time was not immediately comprehensible to them. They often return straight to their phones.

Before the student doth protest too much, I am not advocating a halcyon return to the days of yesteryear where chalk, slate, pen and paper commanded attention. I don’t think they ever did. Distraction instead presented itself as daydreaming, scribbling messages on desks and rocking on chairs.

What I can offer are some slow-inspired techniques that might help people who feel they are hapless when trying to focus their attention with either a smartphone or laptop present. These simple methods have helped me refocus my attention in a lecture.

1.      Accept your attention will wander.

If this happens, you shouldn’t feel guilty. It’s perfectly acceptable to lose focus. Instead, acknowledge it and gently try and refocus on the task. This is a technique I learned from the mediation app Headspace where the first 30 sessions are free (there is also a pack dedicated to concentration if you decide to pay).

2.      Turn your phone off, or failing that, turn it to airplane mode, with push notifications and vibrate both off.

3.      Don’t use a laptop, unless you absolutely have to.

4.      If your attention wanders, stretch in your seat if possible. Move your limbs and remind yourself that you are a bag flesh and bones that was not designed to stay still for long periods of time.

5.      Drink water. The evidence shows it helps focus.

Many people use laptops because they have a perfectly legitimate problem writing. But if you can use a pad of paper and pen, think through the sacrifice you are making here. Does the rapidity of typing really mean you are learning? Writing hand written notes is a tactile and slightly more laborious process. It could be that forming those words with your hand, you stand a better chance of committing the point to memory.

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