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How to help students avoid distractions when studying online

Since the pandemic began, the time students spend online has significant increased, with recent studies showing that students spend an average of 7 hours per day on a screen for non-academic reasons. In the classroom, students are also spending more time online, with many schools implementing digital learning.

However, one major drawback to this shift is that more students are getting distracted online. A factor influencing this is students’ level of cognitive control and their ability to pay attention to the task at hand.

Let’s take a look at the role of cognitive control in learning, and tips to help students stay more on task when learning online…

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The role of cognitive control in an online learning environment

We all have a limited attention capacity and can only focus on a few things at a time. When studying online, students might need to switch between different media outlets to find the information they need. To do this, students need to exhibit cognitive control, meaning they avoid distractions and focus on the task at hand.

Two factors that have been found to enhance students’ level of control are note taking and time pressure. Let’s take a look at what the study found…


What the research suggests

In this study, researchers asked 60 students to complete a task by finding the answers online. Those in the high time pressure condition were given 15 minutes to complete the tasks, and those in the low time pressure condition were given 30 minutes. Students were further divided into three groups, depending on the type of notetaking used:

  • Conventional notes – Students made notes without being given a specific structure.
  • Matrix notes – Students in this condition were given notes in a table format, with the topics in the column, and different categories to fill out in rows.
  • Note-free – This group did not need to take notes.


Students were then given their set duration and their screen was recorded to measure the number of times they got distracted. The researchers found that:

  • Using high time-pressure reduced distractibilityThe number and duration of irrelevant browsing dropped significantly when high time pressure was used.
  • Matrix note taking reduced irrelevant browsingStudents in the matrix condition had the lowest rate of irrelevant browsing and performed better than their peers.


Why is this? Well, a specific time constraint means that students are more motivated to finish the task knowing they can have free time soon after the task is completed. In terms of note taking, having matrix notes allows students to process the information on a deeper level and guides their attention to stay on task.


How to use these findings in your classroom

  1. Use deadlines

When studying online, it is beneficial if students create their own deadlines to stay on task. This can be done by setting time limits for different tasks they need to complete. Having a mild time constraint allows students to focus on their work without getting stressed from the time limit.

Using a time constraint can also be motivating for students, as they are reminded that they can have their own entertainment once the task is completed.


  1. Encourage matrix note taking

In the above study, researchers found that matrix note taking was the most effective. Students who used this method not only stayed on track, but also performed better.

One reason for this is that using matrix note taking helps signal to students the major points they need to search for, which helps them extract the relevant information. In addition, the table structure allows them to compare and contrast the different topics searched. Therefore, using this type of note taking can help improve students’ focus.


  1. Download a restrictive software

There are many softwares that help prevent students from getting distracted online. For example, StayFocusd is an extension available on Google Chrome that blocks websites for a certain time.

One benefit of blocking websites is that it prevents students from being tempted to procrastinate and go on websites irrelevant to the task at hand. It can help them be more efficient and finish the task in a quicker time.


Final Thoughts

Since the rise of digital learning, there have been more opportunities and temptations for students to get distracted when learning online. This is even more prominent when students are studying outside of the classroom. By encouraging students to set mild time limits, use matrix notes and have a website blocker, you can help them get distracted less and focus better on their tasks at hand.


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