The Allure of Distraction: How to Support Students to Stay on Task In an Age of Constant Interruptions 

By Sudipti Kumar, EXPLO Elevate Director of Research

Students may have a tendency to both get interrupted and self-interrupt while working on a task, which research has shown can happen as frequently as every three minutes in the workplace. This can negatively impact the extraneous component of their cognitive load and cause higher amounts of stress, which ultimately results in an inability to get to deeper thinking and learning. (Relatedly, Elevate hosted a webinar on the concept of retrieval practice, which provides another strategy for supporting students in getting to deeper learning). Educators can consider a few ways to support students through providing ample time in schedules, teaching self-regulation skills, and providing meaningful project-based learning opportunities.

Every Three Minutes

I recently came across this article from over a decade ago in Fast Company on task-switching and the cost of interruptions. The article cites some fascinating research about a topic that has been on my mind ever since students moved to remote learning, given the ways in which an increased use of technology allows us all to multitask constantly, and what I suspect has become an even more pronounced phenomenon when students are at home with a laptop, phone, tablet, and perhaps even television, close at hand. 

In the study conducted by the author and her peers, they observed “information workers” and how frequently they switched tasks, which was on average every three minutes. That meant after doing something work-related (e.g. writing an email) for three minutes, they would either be interrupted or self-interrupt to do something else, like surf the web.

The kicker, at least in my mind, is that HALF of these interruptions were actually self-imposed rather than based on an external factor.

The researchers also categorized when people switched between entire projects rather than just small tasks (e.g. working on project A and then moving onto project B, then project C) and found that happened on average, every 10 minutes. 

Some of the very real yet unsurprising issues with this constant interrupting of workflow include: 

  • Shifting cognitive or attentional resources away from one task means that it can take longer to come back to it and to remember where you were in the work 
  • Constant interruptions, particularly when done to the person from an external source, can cause higher stress and take a psychological toll 
  • It may be almost impossible to get to a level of deep thinking (and by extension deep learning) when a person switches between one project and another every ten minutes

Of course there can be numerous benefits to interruptions and task switching—whether that be an opportunity to give yourself some space to breathe and think, or a much-needed respite from too much thinking. Breaks are necessary and have been shown to increase productivity in the workplace.

So Many Questions

The question on my mind is, what are the ways in which we interrupt and task-switch that are actually detrimental, versus taking the purposeful breaks or moving onto another task when we feel it is necessary? 

As I extend this thinking to schools, I start with the typical student interruptions during the average school day—how many are self-imposed and how many aren’t? Are they all equal? Are some “good”? Are some “not so good”? Are interruptions causing some amount of stress? Are there certain students for whom they cause more stress than for others? And the one question most on my mind—are we limiting students’ ability to get to deep thinking and learning because class periods often end in 45 minutes with a bell, perhaps only 10 minutes after a student started the assignment?  What about the now ubiquitous remote learning environment, where a student can literally be in a class online and checking email every two minutes, texting a friend every three, and perhaps reading an article about their favorite sports team on the side as well?  

What if we, as educators, support our students in managing interruptions?  Both the ones that we might be inadvertently pushing on them, and the ones they may be doing to themselves without thinking about the cost. Can we also commit to limiting the ways in which we interrupt our students, albeit innocently, so that they can get the time to think that they might desperately need? 

Might that mean that we restrain the impulse to make an announcement in the middle of class that could sidetrack students? Do we give students the ability to take breaks as needed but actively teach them about the power of “real breaks” versus constant mini-breaks every few minutes? Could we offer students extra time in a class period if they are deeply immersed in the work and allow them to be late to the next class? Better yet, how can we get rid of the rigidity of a typical school schedule altogether? 

Essentially what I am discussing here is something many educators think about all the timehow to reduce a student’s cognitive load by minimizing distractions.

But I am also talking about how to increase a student’s ability to self-regulate and learn how to manage their own cognitive load so they focus more and multitask less naturally, ultimately moving themselves to a state of deeper learning. 

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), developed by John Sweller in the 1980’s, breaks down the three components of working memory:

  • Intrinsic load (ability to do the task at hand),
  • Extraneous load (elements occupying the memory that impede it from doing the task at hand),
  • Germane load (systems that support the ability to process the task and aid in creating “schemas”).

If our goal is to support students in deep learning, how do we mitigate extraneous load but also support students in doing it for themselves? (In one of Elevate’s signature summer professional learning offerings, Agile Course Design, we led teachers through a deeper understanding of these concepts and how they interact with online learning versus in-person.)

A redesigned schedule could help—one where students aren’t constantly waiting for a bell to ring and knowing they will be interrupted just as soon as they start working on something of interest. But this is no guarantee that students won’t find another way to self-interrupt—unless they have the skills to focus and immerse and take purposeful breaks. These are practices they have to learn and be reminded of. 

Educators may want to think about their responsibilities across a few domains: 

  1. The Gift of Time
    Do students have enough time (within the day, within the class period) to move into a state of deeper learning? Are they in a space that is comfortable enough and without distractions to support them in doing so? 
  2. The Prioritization of Skill-Building
    Do students know the power of breaks
    and the power of staying on task? Can they differentiate and choose for themselves when they need a break versus when they are engaging in off-task behavior that isn’t helpful? 
  3. The Offering of Meaningful Opportunities
    Are we, as educators, providing our students with projects that foster deep thinking and reflection? 

One tangible way to support students may be to teach them the Pomodoro (Italian for tomato) Technique or something similar—the practice of alternating focused working sessions with mini-breaks to promote increased concentration and reduce mental fatigue. There are also technology-based products that could help students block their time and block distractions. 

Ultimately, self-interruption can be extremely beneficial when done with a sense of control and knowledge that one is switching between tasks for good reason. When there is no sense of self-awareness, it can easily turn into self-sabotage.