Sarah Abott sprints up the stairs, coffee in hand, rushing to make class on time. The tall brunette slithers into her desk with minutes to spare. “Ahh,” she lets out a deep sigh of relief. She takes out her notebook and pen, ready to cling to every word that comes out of her professor’s mouth for the next fifty minutes of uninterrupted learning bliss. Or so she thinks.
Immersed in the lecture, Abbott hears strange noises and turns around to see where the unwelcome sounds are coming from. The twenty-two-year-old cannot believe her eyes. A fellow classmate is shaking both legs and tapping her fingers in a futile attempt to stay awake, causing Abbott’s entire row to convulse so much that she can no longer pay attention to anything but her disruptive classmate.
For some students, it takes a lot of concentration and willpower just to focus on a long and arduous lecture in the first place. Add distracting classmates into the mix, and paying attention becomes much harder. According to Fuzzy Brain? Improve Your Attention Span published on cnn.com, “Concentration occurs when the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, which controls high-level cognitive tasks, is awash with the right cocktail of neurotransmitters, hormones, and other body chemicals, particularly the pleasure chemical dopamine.”
The article goes on to explain that when you lose attention, your dopamine levels drop, prompting you to find a distraction, which is not too hard in most classrooms. Many students these days casually text in class, watch videos online, and talk amongst each other, as well as other inappropriate and distracting behaviors. These actions not only affect the students doing them, but also their classmates around them.
Many SF State students like Abbott have had enough. “It was the most distracting anyone has ever been in class,” says Abbott. “I looked at her in a mean way a couple of times and she didn’t get it. She started falling asleep and nodding off and coming back, then falling asleep again. I had to tell her to stop, and it came out really mean. I felt really bad.”
Sociology major Hunter Ridenour says he has seen an increase in students bringing their laptops to class and watching videos on YouTube or playing games on their iPhones such as “Angry Birds.” “I don’t even understand why students come to class if they are just going to watch videos on their laptops,” he laments. “But I know they usually come because of mandatory attendance.”
The twenty-two-year-old says he gets extremely distracted by this because he always wants to take a peek at what his classmates are watching, and this takes him away from the lecture at hand. According to Ridenour, his professor, Dr. Carrington banned laptops from class for this reason.
“I was so happy when Dr. Carrington told the class that laptops weren’t allowed,” says Ridenour. “I think that was really a great idea, and it really helped me pay attention in the class.”
According to Dr. Carrington, there is no place for laptops or iPhones in his classroom or any classroom for that matter. What students don’t realize is that their iPhone or laptop use does not only distract them, but it also distracts professors as well. Dr. Carrington says that when he sees a student on his phone it takes him away from the course material, and this happens with other professors as well.
“In my experience,” Carrington continues, “professors who care deeply about student comprehension, and who also care about creating equitable learning environments, they think very carefully about the use of laptops and iPhones in classrooms and have clear policies about their use. Of course, there are learning tasks, course subjects, and entire courses where these devices are perfectly suited, but I suspect these are the exception, not the norm.”
Dr. Carrington’s policy may seem harsh, but he knows what really happens when a student pulls out their flashy new phone. “Because humans are phototropic, laptops and iPhones draw the eyes, energy, and attention of anyone near a light source,” he explains. “If someone next to you opens a laptop, the image draws your attention, and draws one away from the lecture, film, discussion, et cetera.”
It isn’t always technology that is to blame. Junior Karanbir ‘Kiki’ Deol says he gets distracted the most by students giggling and chit-chatting in class. Although he claims this does not make him angry, he says it is frustrating when he is interrupted during a really important lecture where he cannot miss any information. Even more, he feels telling the mouthy students to be quiet will do more harm than good. “It wastes more time to tell them to shut up. I’ve seen other students tell students to be quiet and they will say, ‘Oh, sorry,’ but they’ll just keep talking anyway.”
Unfortunately, some students may never learn. Even with a ban on technology in the classroom, bored students will revert to what they did in their elementary school days. After all, students will always have the ability and urge to talk, gossip, and laugh during long classes. Even though it is impossible to control others, there is hope for students sick and tired of being distracted in class.
According to Fuzzy Brain? Improve Your Attention Span, “All of us can feel distracted when we’re at the mercy of internal factors, like fatigue, stress, and anger.” A way to ensure you will be at your best in class to fight off distracting classmates is to get enough rest the night before so your sleep deprivation doesn’t thwart your attention span. Bringing a healthy snack to class will also help you focus, as it will maintain balanced blood-sugar levels.
There is always an upside to distracting classmates though—funny stories to tell your roommates or co-workers. “How distracted I get depends on the conversation behind me. If it is kind of scandalous,” laughs Deol. “I’ll be like, oh this is interesting, I’m going to listen to this.”