Teaching Style, Not Computers, Appears To Be Biggest Factor In Classroom Distraction

from the let's-go-to-the-data dept

For many years, we’ve covered various stories of professors struggling with the idea of students having their laptops open in the classroom. Our argument has always been that the computers themselves are neutral, and it’s up to the professors to adapt and make sure their teaching strategies either do a good job incorporating the computers, or come up with ways to keep students’ attention. Some have argued that this is an impossible task. A few years back, we even wrote about professors looking to ban computers in classrooms — which won’t do much to actually make boring professors any more interesting. Meanwhile, other professors found that, with a little education, students could learn to pay more attention.

Eric Goldman points us to an interesting discussion of a new empirical study that looked at how law students used computers in the classroom, and the data suggests that there clearly are teaching strategies that can overcome any issues. It also found that, even with laptops, not every student was off surfing celebrity gossip sites while they were supposed to be learning about the law. The study itself is by Kim Novak Morse.

The results from the study reveal that indeed students are off task in class; however, it is not as extensive as we thought, nor is it the population of students we thought it was (of course, this depends on whether you are an optimist or pessimist). Second-year students were off task the most time, at 42% of the entire semester. First-years were off task approximately 35% of the time for the semester while third-years spent approximately 28% of their class time off task. Regarding how many individual students were ON-task at a given instant, roughly 82% of third-years, 69% of first years, and 50% of second-years were NOT misusing their laptops (chart 1).

Another tidbit? Students who had higher LSAT scores tended to be more off-task. I would imagine there are a few possible interpretations of that factoid, including the idea that those who did well on the LSAT are able to grasp some of these topics more quickly (or picked them up elsewhere) and quickly move on to “other tasks,” when a professor hits topics they’re already familiar with or know they can teach themselves.

There is a rather stunning result on the question of how being off task impacts grades:

While the numbers indicate that students are off-task, my second research question sought to answer whether more off-task behavior might correlate to lower final course grade. Through statistical analysis, the results indicate that there is no correlation between high off-task behavior and lower final course grade (chart 4). Nor is there a correlation between low off-task behavior and higher final course grade. Such results support the idea that students learn outside of class as well as in class and, though they may miss ideas in class due to off-task behavior, they often learn or supplement it through readings, study groups, clinics, etc.

Shorter version: sorry, professor, the relevance of your actual lecture to a student’s ability to learn the material might not be that big.

That said, the study also found that certain actions “promoted off-task behavior”:

  1. Student laptop users tend to go off-task when X-(anything) occurs for 4 minutes or more…
  2. When professor is engaged in Socratic method with one student, there is a an increase in off-task behavior by other students
  3. When a classmate engages with professor, there is an increase in off-task behavior by other students.
  4. When professor is monotone, or, overly uses one linguistic intonation style, students tend to increase off-task behavior
  5. Approximately 40 minutes into class, off-task behavior increases.
  6. When professor calls on students in expected order, off-task behavior increases.

That shows what to avoid. What about strategies to get people to pay attention? The report has some answers there as well:

1)    “Announcing-the-Good-Stuff” Strategy: Students redirect attention away from off-task behavior when professor provides big-point-summaries, rule formations, definitions, and conclusions. 

“Ultimately, courts look at X…”;  “The upshot is…”

 2)    Using the “Rupture Strategy”: Students decrease off-task behavior when directed to an item in a book, chalkboard, digital presentation, in-class task, etc.

“Look at page X…”;   “On the chalkboard you see…”; 

“On the screen, notice X…”, “Write a brief X…”

3)    “Changing-up-the-Voice” Strategy: Students redirect attention away from off-task behavior when the professor prefaces content with signal phrases like:

“This would be a good exam question…”

“ I want to flag for you…” , “The critical idea here is…”

Or, by using linguistic mannerisms like intonation, especially rising intonation found in questions:

“And, how would you know   X     ?”;  “Because……..?”

4)    “Problem-Posing” Strategy: Students redirect attention when the professor asks a problem-solving question to the class (less so than targeting one student).

“How might we determine X…?”

“If we alter X, what might Y?”

5)“Keep-the-Show-Moving” Strategy:

Students redirect attention away from off-task behavior when the professor manages “the duration of any X” so it doesn’t exceed 4-5 minutes. For example, the professor   1) may present info (5 min or less) switch 2) ask a question to the class (5 min or less)  switch 3) direct students to book (5 min or less) switch 4) ask an individual a question and have student respond (5 min or less). switch, etc.  6)“Moving-into-student’s-space” Strategy: Students redirect attention when professor moves toward off-task individuals (but surprisingly only for a short time).

I’m sure it’s easy for professors to want to ban computers because they think it’s a bad thing that students aren’t paying attention to them. However, this study suggests something different: that the students already know they can get a better grasp on the material elsewhere, or they’re just not that interested in what’s happening in the classroom. The first point means that professors probably shouldn’t worry so much about this issue. The second, however is something where many professors might want to focus on improving…

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Comments on “Teaching Style, Not Computers, Appears To Be Biggest Factor In Classroom Distraction”

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Sneeje (profile) says:

Take it for what it's worth...

Mike, I think you’re spot on regarding why those with higher LSATs might be off-task more.

I’m going to freely admit that I am off-task in many, many meetings, and all throughout my MBA. Training too.

I used to feel very guilty about this, until I realized I need a very high density of information transfer per unit of time to remain focused. I’m not saying I’m some brilliant guy, I just cannot stand instruction or meetings that take 60 minutes to deliver 15 minutes (or less) of information. So, the minute I’ve grasped what’s being said, I’m on to other things.

That said, if the meeting is highly interactive, social, etc., my focus will be dedicated.

So, I think the off-task behavior can be both an indicator of student dedication as well as the efficiency and quality of information transfer.

GMacGuffin says:

It should be noted that this study focused on law students. The stuff professors are saying in class often sounds like the teachers in Peanuts: “Wah wha whagh wah.” Complicated stuff being taught by a person who knows it too well to boil it down (if it can be boiled down). So for many the only way to understand it anyway is during quiet time at home alone, not at class. Might as well read TechDirt while in class (and hope you don’t get called on).

Machin Shin (profile) says:


I would really challenge the idea that law is “Complicated stuff being taught by a person who knows it too well to boil it down (if it can be boiled down)”

Law is complicated because idiots are making it complicated. Often is you read a law the only “complicated” part of it is how you can take a single sentence idea and turn it into 10 pages of gibberish.

I mean these people can take “Don’t scream fire in crowed building when there is no real fire.” and turn it into a 50 page law. Is it a complicated idea? No. Does it need to take more than one sentence to say? No. Will a lawyer make it some insane monstrosity no one can read and manage to make loopholes? Hell yes.

Anonymous Coward says:

Take it for what it's worth...

Yes. By your own experience, you show that the conclusion drawn just isn’t the full on right answer.

Some students are fast learners, that is to say they grok the subject quickly, understand the work, and move on from there. For them, the classroom time may be mostly a waste, a detailed look at something they already understand. I can imagine them off looking at TMZ.

For other students, it takes longer to grasp the subject, and they will be “on subject” all the way through the class, attempting to glean that magic thing that makes them truly understand the concept.

I think it is a very big jump to assume that this is a result of teaching style.

Cowardly Anonymous says:


This really has no bearing on the subject. Anything taught at a college is going to be complicated. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t need the college to provided an organized progression to the material.

The key is that a slow pace loses half the class as easily as a fast pace does, and someone is always going to either not get it or tune out. The only reason it is finally being noticed now is that material on a lap top screen is more obvious than doodles in a notebook (which are more prolific in my Computer Science notebooks than actual notes).

By the way, I’m in my final semester of undergrad with a 3.4 GPA and tend to learn material by helping others understand assignments if I don’t pick it up while doodling in class.

It isn’t a problem so long as the Professor maintains a reasonable pace. Too slow and people start skipping classes. Too fast and office hours will be over-flowing. Tune as necessary to avoid these extremes and remember that you can’t please everyone.

Cowardly Anonymous says:

You get out of it what you put into it

This is a prime example of the mindset that has Professors fighting “off-task” behavior. The amount of effort required by a student to grasp material varies wildly. Some of us can sit back, complain, skip a few classes (review classes, *snore*) and still absorb the material.

I have one Professor who reviews the last class at the start of every class. He’s a great Professor and I find the classes engaging, but I skip every other one as I have no need to learn everything twice.

Anonymous Coward says:

Or, a much better strategy....

Don’t require people to attend class. Then, those who are there because they learn better in-class can get a more direct learning experience and those who learn better outside of class can do so.

As long as they show up on the day of the exam and do well, who cares how they learned it? Oh that’s right, the professor, who is then proven to not matter at all in the teaching of the material.

Anonymous Coward says:


One thing I really have more complaints about, especially when it comes to higher level math, is textbooks.

They seem to be okay when it comes to algebra and finite math and more basic stuff, but when you get up into calculus and above they seem lacking.

A recent slashdot article about this is


Machin Shin (profile) says:

You get out of it what you put into it

I have one REALLY big problem with this mentality. Once you hit college you are PAYING for your education. I should not have to overcome a poor teacher.

This is why I gave up on this worthless system. I got sick of paying for classes that when I went to them all I got was an hour long story of what happened at beer fest over the weekend.

Cowardly Anonymous says:

Or, a much better strategy....

“Oh that’s right, the professor, who is then proven to not matter at all in the teaching of the material.”

Even when we skip classes, we are still using the Professor’s notes, resources, suggested texts and over-all path through the material. We are still learning things in the order they will appear on the tests and home-works which can make a big difference.

The lectures and office hours are still a really good resource for most of the class. I know this because mandatory attendance does usually cut out after freshman year.

fogbugzd (profile) says:

Laptops did not create the problem of students not paying attention during class, they just replaced doodling.

I am a professor at a teaching university. I teach computer science courses, so my students usually do have laptops, and I often have classes in computer labs where every student has a computer in front of them.

My own experience mostly corresponds to the findings in the study. I think the issue is more complex than just on-task/off-task suggests. Lots of modern students can multitask better than we could at their age. It is possible for students to have their eyes on their computers and their ears in the lecture. They can switch their full attention back to the lecture when they sense something significant is going on.

The real problem comes when they get too engrossed in what is on the screen and lose track of class. I can often tell when that has happened, and I use some of the same techniques the study highlights. I often ask students to write something down or look at something in the book. It is pretty easy to tell which students are too distracted to do that. In my experience, students too distracted to look away from their computers on a frequent basis fail tests and fail to turn in homework, almost without exception.

In reading the study I realize that I have already adopted many of the tactics the study observed. The “something new every 4 minutes” is one of the teaching techniques I used long before we had laptops.

While I think the author’s observations are correct for most students, there are exceptions on an individual student basis. I have recommended that certain students not take their laptops to classes. That has more often than not had positive results for those students.

Anonymous Coward says:

Take it for what it's worth...

It’s a result of teaching style insofar as teaching style can engage those who would otherwise be distracted.

Even if you understand the material, an engaging teaching style (lively discussions within the class, problems to solve, questions being asked, an enthusiastic professor) go a long way to keeping you on task and engaged. Take the idea of it being a result of teaching style to mean that teaching style can engage you even if you don’t necessarily need to be paying attention.

Sneeje (profile) says:

Take it for what it's worth...

I’m not sure what you mean by “right answer”. I don’t think Mike or I were saying that there is an “answer” here, just that the behavior of students not being “on-task” is not an indicator of a lack of engagement with the fundamental education.

My read is that there has been a growing perception that students over the last ten years are somehow becoming poorer students and that laptops and electronic devices are degrading the educational experience, and this would dispute that.

This study seems to indicate that attention in class has little to do with class success (see correlation to final class grade above) and that gels with my experience.

Those who need to focus are doing so, and those who do not need to focus, aren’t.

Sneeje (profile) says:


Well, another part of the reason it is so complicated is that language is inherently vague. Words can have different meanings and scope to different people.

Legalese attempts to minimize that sloppiness by using special legal terms, as well as by using lots and lots of words to cover as many eventualities as possible.

All to varying degrees of success, of course.

Anonymous Coward says:

Take it for what it's worth...

I think the title says it all: “Teaching Style, Not Computers, Appears To Be Biggest Factor In Classroom Distraction”.

Now, it’s written in weasel words, I will admit, using “appears” rather than an absolute statement, but the presentation is pretty much painting a correlation, where none may exist – or that it is incidental to the real reasons students pay attention.

I think you are right. Some people may feel that the laptop-ing of students makes them poorer students, which would from all indications appear to be false. But there is little to indicate that teaching style has very much to do with it. It’s seems more like trying to draw a conclusion where none really exists.

Anonymous Coward says:

I completely agree!

My parents pay $50k a year for my schooling and I can’t tell you how many boring classes I have to take for my major in Undecided. It’s even more excruciating when I go to class stoned off my ass. If I want to browse reddit to make it through your boring ass class, then what do you care? The school should have hired Bill Nye if they wanted me to get good grades.

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:


Well, another part of the reason it is so complicated is that language is inherently vague. Words can have different meanings and scope to different people.

This is only an issue amongst the ignorant/illiterate. People who can read and use a dictionary tend to agree on the definition of things.

In some fields–code monkeying, for example (Law, for another)–ambiguity and poor definitions are the enemy.

If I’m holding a red apple, and I state “this apple is red” and some idiot hearing me state loudly that I’m wrong, because his definitions of “red” and “apple” are apparently “blue” and “Chevy”, which one of us is insanely wrong?

Cowardly Anonymous says:


Oh, we really need to establish a dialogue between lawyers and robotics engineers. The problems each group faces appear to be very similar and each could probably learn a lot from the other. Engineers could learn the kinds of pitfalls that the history of law has come across and lawyers could learn a lot of disambiguation techniques from the grammars of programming languages.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:


You know, before I turned my life path from academic to trade/technical I would have agreed with you about the complexity of SOME university streams. Before I go on there is often the notion that university offers the option of in depth study that is lacking in trades/technical paths.

I can’t speak for the past, except that part of it that I’ve actually lived but the trades and technical jobs require as much if not more, at times, adaptation and mental nimbleness as academia does.

Traditionally the trades have had the advantage of the apprenticeship system where newbies actually learn most of what they need to from journeymen. (OK, journeypeople, for the politically correct among us!) The same issues as cited here apply. Apprentices will drift off if the journeyman is dull, boring or frequently goes off topic themselves. Once the tools are in their hands and they have to learn by doing, troubleshoot by doing then their attention perks up as does their mental engagement as well as their skills.

BTW, given my learning style, I dropped out of university level before completing second year because I was bored beyond belief, I’m what’s called a “conceptual learner” which basically means that once I have a grasp of the concept I can and do zoom from A-Z, just let me know where to find the details or just turn me loose with tools and the other things I need for my craft or course. Don’t bore me to death with the details, I’ll find them when I need them and do it very quickly.

To put it badly in an academic setting give me a paper to write that requires a bit of research and a tight deadline and I’ll get to the details myself.

BTW, when I dropped out I had a 3.4 GPA, too, and the highlight of my days in trades and technical learning is when I get to help other people out because we both seem to learn faster that way.

So it’s not just teaching styles that matter it’s the individual student’s learning style as well. We keep forgetting that not so minor detail. The more the student is aware of their learning style is the more they’re able to take in without getting frustrated or bored. It helps if the teacher is aware of it too but with today’s “industrial” schooling they rarely have time for that.

GMacGuffin says:


To be fair, and despite what you read on this blog concerning legislation via lobby (much of which I agree with), many many laws based on simple ideas become complicated because they are drafted in a good faith attempt to stave off unintended consequences, i.e., collateral damage And we know that unintended consequences has been a major focus in this forum.

But you cannot possibly anticipate every fact scenario, and cases with facts that don’t fit start showing up, courts try to pigeonhole the facts to get the “right” result, at times make bad case law, then the legislature says, “That’s not what we meant,” and tries to amend to cover the new unanticipated fact scenario, and the spiral continues toward total morass.

Interestingly, that’s the way the system was designed: Law by committee, interpretation by the courts, blah blah blah.

As an anectodal, I had a class once where a group of us were charged with drafting a simple statue. After weeks of “what ifs” from the parties, we came up with a document pushing 1000s of words. Too many variables to consider, too many scenarios to contemplate, i.e., complicated.

hexjones (profile) says:

I’m a CS grad student and there are people in my classes who sit in front of me and surf around constantly, then can’t answer questions.

One problem not addressed here is how distracting it can be for other students when people are flitting about on websites and working on other projects. Taking notes on the computer? great. Otherwise, sit in the back please, or take the course online.

PRMan (profile) says:

I used to be an adjunct professor

I would say, “Everything in the blue box will be on the test.” There was a simple formula in there that they would need to know to do well on the test. Half the class would miss it and the question they needed it for. How? I have no idea.

Still, the key was to make programming engaging and fun (after scaring the crap out of them as to how hard it would be the first day). Most of my students got A’s and B’s (based on work completed and test scores, no curve) and most went on to computer-related careers because they lost the fear of the thing.

Cowardly Anonymous says:


Oh, don’t get me wrong, I could learn much more much quicker out in the workplace and I am well aware of that. The thing is, employers in my industry won’t take a second look at a non-disabled Caucasian male unless he has a degree, and even then it is difficult, diversity requirements being what they are. Well, that and parental pressure/sibling rivalries.

Nastybutler77 (profile) says:

One of the problems I’ve encountered is that professors aren’t teachers. In the science, and some other, departments the professor’s main focus is on research and teaching classes is a necessary evil to use the university’s facilities, equipment, and other resources. As long as they “teach” X number of classes they can do what they believe they’re really there to do.

I wish there was a way to incentivize professors to actually teach students. Tie in student surveys to funding or lab time or something.

Another problem I’ve seen is that a professor may be so advanced in their field, yet have to teach freshmen and sophmore classes that are, to them, very basic. I’ve experienced this in a Trigonometry class my freshman year. The professor was brilliant, but she couldn’t comprehend that concepts she took for granted weren’t common knowledge for her students. She’d assume we grasped everything on the first go around and get frustrated if someone asked her to go over a concept in greater detail.

I can see why she was frustrated, but if you feel the class you’re teaching is “beneath” you, then you’re not going to make a very good teacher.

AzureSky (profile) says:


I once had a math teacher at collage who was teaching a basic math class(i forget the number), the guy was horrible, first class he ever taught, he had just gotten out of uni and had taken all the way up to the highest level math classes…

when he was trying to teach the class a negative minus a negative he went into this 3 white board justification of why it worked the way it did…..(i was in there to review his work)

he didnt get that he just was there to show them how to get the right answer, not to teach them higher math that most of them wouldnt need or wouldnt ever understand..

he also gave incorrect conversion numbers for stuff like converting 32f into Celsius….was really…..entertaining….

he was a nice guy but its pretty sad when the people who came every day had a 87% fail rate, but the people who never came other then to turn in and grab homework passed with flying colors…..

AzureSky (profile) says:


I agree with you to a point, BUT I am one of those exceptions, I have taken classes where I gave little to no attention to the lectures and spent most of the time online or reading a book and still passed, many times with flying colors.

But and heres the thing, If I dont really know the material and the teacher is even somewhat competent I pay attention till I do get it, took an english+writing coarse once(as an audit) and was very interested in some of the lectures, others I found to be “common sense”, the funny part was, the instructor use to talk with us for the last 15min of the class and she didnt get upset when she asked me why I was reading a book rather then paying attention and I gave her an honest answer.

infact, about 1/3 of the class had off tasked at that part, the rest it was a mix of barly paying attention and people taking furious notes because they didnt get it at all…

in the end, she tweaked her teaching style and how she ran the lectures on some area’s to include more question and answer and class interaction, if a student wasnt getting it the way she explained it, she would ask if anybody else had any ideas of how to explain it….really good teacher.

in the end she learned as much from the class as the students, and nobody failed who had shown up for at least most of the sessions. (had a few who couldnt seem to get out of bed for a 1pm class…..)

she also pulled me aside and told me if I ever wanted to take her class for credit she would just sign off on it as soon as I paid and may even have tried to hire me as her TA…

the funniest part is all thru my public school days i was SPED and treated like a screwup/moron/problem, because I wouldnt/couldnt sit thru classes that bored the living hell out of me…but i did excellent in classes that could engage me, at one point i was pretty much teaching one of the sped math classes(one of the subjects i dislike) because i was better at explaining things in different ways to people, as anybody who knows much about math would know, there are many ways to get to the correct answer not just 1….(thats true for most things in life honestly…)

AzureSky (profile) says:

It's basic good writing/communciation skills

The problem is, that the same technique dosnt work for all students, some people are very visual, some very aural, others tactile(see/hear/touch), I am all 3, but the subject needs to be done in a way that engages me if not….i cant force myself to pay attention….

I have had instructors who where GREAT who could engage even the most uninterested students, I have had others who where in subjects that should have been engaging who couldnt keep even 1/2 the class’s attention past roll call.

funny enough, one was a communications class….the woman could not teach of communicate to a group(1 on 1 she was amazing to talk with, but to a group….like 2 dif people)

I think some instructors need to stick to being more of a small group or almost like a 1 on 1 type situation, I have seen this kinda thing work where a class had 2-3 instructors who ran it(took turns and such) each able to cover up for the others flaws….but im sure that costs more for the collage then 1 instructor even if they are horrible.

AzureSky (profile) says:


personally I see this as good training for you in the real world, people in meetings and at jobs wont be “on task” or on the same task as you when your in the real world at a job, hell very few jobs I have had ever had everybody on the same task doing the same thing all the time.

and those that did where production work at temp jobs(mindless Representative stuff like stacking plastic stuff and putting it in boxes)

if you cant learn to deal with distractions your not going to do well in most real world jobs….sorry but its a fact…I have been in board meetings where 1/2 the people where surfing youtube or facebook….(at least none of them had the audio cranked up…lol )

TtfnJohn (profile) says:


That’s far too true of many industries. Far too many value that bit of paper and the alphabet soup of initials after a person’s name as evidence of much more that the ability to regurgitate what some prof said in the lectures as actual knowledge.

Which isn’t to say that’s all either of us acquired there. Only that there are other,frequently better ways of learning. And teaching.

One good thing our societies are learning now that we boomers are fleeing the workforce as regular, full time employees is that the trades and technical people are really worth our weight in gold. Nothing much works without us. 😉

Walks-In-Storms (profile) says:


Yay! In other words, I stop listening in class. I’ll learn by what – inspiration? This’ll also vincidate all the morons I seen “texting” while they drive (like the incredibly fat lady who failed – while texting and eating from a bag of Cheetos on the dash of her pick-up truck – to negotiate a neighborhood intersection turn: she drove up onto a lawn before finishing the message and filling her face).

Man, this is real science! Like the surveys that tell us a man is different from a woman, I mean.

Cowardly Anonymous says:


Probably the most honest title for a post I have ever seen.

The study is directed at professors, not students. If I stop listening in class, it is because I’m bored. As soon as something interesting happens, I’ll be paying attention again, though I’ll still be doodling (it actually helps me keep my mind from wandering too far).

If you stop paying attention in class, you might not learn anything at all. Others can learn everything from reviewing notes. Some people can’t learn anything at the pace of a lecture and instead need the one-on-one interface that office hours provide.

There is no net take-away for students. The take-away for professors is that an off-task student is waiting for something interesting to happen, and by doing so they provide immediate feedback you can use to test and improve your lecturing.

In conclusion, the world doesn’t revolve around you and thus not all studies will directly relate to your situation.

Nathan (user link) says:


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