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5 Ways to Help Students Manage Digital Distractions and Stay on Track

Promote organization, time management, and executive functioning skills with these essential strategies.

October 31, 2017
Ana Homayoun
School Consultant and Author

CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Students, Technology Integration

It’s no secret that students today face the ultimate paradox: The same devices that help students complete their work are also their biggest distraction from getting work done. Over the last seven years, I’ve visited schools around the country that have implemented one-to-one computer and tablet programs and personalized learning models. In many cases, schools have successfully focused on the technology and implementation of their programs, but are still searching for successful ways to promote organization, time management, and overall wellness.

After observing classrooms and meeting with teachers and administrators, I designed an orientation curriculum for students that gets their buy-in around organization and time management. Professional development workshops for teachers help them understand their role in promoting executive functioning skills using daily repetition to promote managing digital distractions and creating opportunities for organization. I also present strategies to the parents, because getting everyone -- parents, teachers, and students -- on the same page is the most effective way to ensure long-term success.

If your school has a one-to-one computer or tablet program and/or promotes a personalized learning model, here are five key strategies to promote students’ organization, time management, and executive functioning skills:

1. It’s all about the binders (or digital folders).

Much of my work is around helping students understand how to compartmentalize their work and time. For instance, I encourage students to keep a physical binder or digital folder for each class. They create Notes, Homework, Handouts, and Test/Quizzes tabs or subfolders where they store all papers, handouts, or digital files related to a class. That way, losing homework or forgetting what drive a file is in becomes less likely to take up a significant amount of time.

Tip: Work with students to create a standardized way of naming files. In an ideal world, they are able to hand you their computer and you will be able to find any file in under a minute.

2. Planners and to-do lists don’t have to be digital.

One mistake many schools make when going to a one-to-one computer or tablet program is assuming students can effectively use an online system to manage assignments. Some students certainly find that digital tracking can work, but for many, written planners are more effective, likely for the same reason technology executives still make their to-do lists by hand. What works for one student doesn’t always work for another, but many students find that writing down all their homework assignments, short- and long-term projects, extracurricular activities, and family and social obligations in one place can decrease anxiety and improve prioritization skills.

Tip: Encourage students to jot down all their homework assignments and extracurricular activities in a written planner, and use the online homework portal as a backup. Students regularly tell me that when they go online to figure out the homework, they easily become distracted. Ideally, teachers should announce homework in class, encourage students to pull out a written planner, and put it on the homework portal.

3. Examine workflow strategies that minimize confusion.

At the school I worked with, some teachers were using specific apps to post and collect assignments, others were using Google Docs, and still others sent assignments and wanted them returned via email. In a survey, the middle school students said it took them an average of 30-45 minutes per night just to figure out the homework. That means students were spending several hours per week simply managing workflow -- valuable time they could have spent completing work. When schools adopt one-to-one computer or tablet programs, they don’t always give streamlined guidance on workflow strategies: how teachers give out and collect assignments, and where/when/how assignments are posted. Ideally, all teachers within a school would use similar methods to hand out and collect assignments (either in person or digitally) to minimize the number of different ways students have to manage workflow.

Tip: During advisory, have students identify how each of their teachers assigns and collects homework assignments, and how they prefer to communicate with students. Hopefully teachers can collaborate and come up with consistent strategies to minimize student confusion, but having students take time to reflect on each class and identify expectations can also work to improve organization and workflow management.

4. Encourage compartmentalization of time using productivity tools.

It can be tough for students to stay on task when every notification provides a potential for distraction. Few students want to turn off notifications completely when they are completing work, but helping them find ways to compartmentalize their time helps work get done more quickly with increased retention both in the classroom and at home. Also, it feels less overwhelming and draining because each time they move between an assignment and a social notification, it creates minutes of distraction that quickly makes it so that nothing is done well, and everything feels exhausting. I encourage students to use the Pomodoro method of working for 25 minutes and taking a five-minute break to maximize personal productivity.

Tip: Make monotasking and focused work time fun by having students identify their biggest distractions and figure out what tools work best for them to block or avoid distractions so that they can complete work more efficiently. Forest, an app that works as a timer to encourage students to stay off their phones, gamifies productivity in a positive way by building a digital tree each time a student stays off his or her phone for a designated amount of time. Many digital trees equal a digital forest.

5. Create the opportunity for daily (and weekly) regroup.

Even with the best of intentions, students can get off track -- and the key is to provide regular, structured time for students to regroup at school or at home. When I visited one charter high school, teachers were surprised they needed to regularly promote organization within the classroom -- many were well-intentioned in thinking that was completely a student’s responsibility. What they didn’t fully realize or appreciate was the way in which technology in the classroom has created a new language that students need help navigating and understanding.

Tip: Spending five to 10 minutes a day or 20 to 30 minutes a week can make a big difference in students’ ability to stay on track. During that time, students can physically or digitally file documents, write out assignments, create to-do lists, and prioritize tasks. Those few minutes can quickly decrease stress and increase productivity.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.


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