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How to Deal With Tech Distractions in Class

When was the last time you went to class without your smartphone? I bet it’s been a while, if you can remember doing so at all.

Yes, you may need your phone for safety or even in-class research. But even if it doesn’t distract you from the lesson at hand, buzzes and blue light catch ears and eyes. It’s not fair of you to let your device get in the way of others’ learning.

I’m not going to tell you to leave all your devices at home. You should, however, follow these steps to keep tech from getting in the way of yours and others’ education:

  1. Plan for downtime.
    No matter the instructor or class size, there will be periods when you aren’t actively learning. Professors get stuck in traffic. Group discussions get done early.

    In those moments, what do you do? You pull out your phone. The moment you do that, you sweep class-related ideas out of your working memory. Once class starts or resumes, your brain has to forget about whatever Instagram images or Buzzfeed articles you were looking at, which it probably finds far more engaging than ancient philosophy texts.

    Have a plan for downtime. Keep a book of puzzles in your backpack. Not only will they keep you occupied, but they might actually help you stay focused when it counts. Brain teasers are actually gaining recognition as an alternative ADHD treatment because they build working memory. 
  1. Hold yourself accountable.
    You’re an adult. Nobody is going to take away your phone just because you were using it when you shouldn’t have been. Like it or not, it’s on you to hold yourself accountable.

    Start small: Get an app that discourages you from overusing your phone. Some merely track your usage, while others let you lock yourself out during certain times or past certain usage thresholds. Gamified apps stimulate the reward-seeking part of your brain, which may be to blame for your habit.

    What if apps aren’t enough? Set up a system of rewards and consequences. Perhaps if you go all week without using your phone in class, you’ll buy yourself a pizza for dinner Friday. If you catch yourself with your phone out more than once per class period, though, maybe you owe yourself extra crunches at the rec center.

    3. Ask before you access.
    What if you have a legitimate reason to haul out your phone in class? You might want to look up a term the professor threw out. If you’re expecting an important call, you may need to watch it for the right number.

    Whenever possible, get permission from the people sitting next to you. The best time to do this is before class starts. Everyone realizes that emergencies happen; as long as you’re courteous about it, they shouldn’t mind you sending a text.

    If it’s an in-class need, exhaust your other resources first. Check your textbook’s glossary for the concept or term. If can’t find it, quietly ask to look it up online. If appropriate, raise your hand to share the information. Chances are, others are wondering the same thing.

    4. Give gentle reminders.

Even if you observe smartphone etiquette, students around you might not. If their device use is distracting you, don’t create an even bigger distraction. Shouting or tossing something at them is a surefire way to disrupt the whole class.

What should you do instead? First try a silent cue. If your phone is on your desk, catch the other student’s eye while you put it in your pocket or bag. Only if that doesn’t work should you nudge or quietly ask him or her to put it away.

The key is to spread “social antibodies.” Catch the student who was on his or her phone after class. Don’t make a scene, but do make clear that you think it’s poor manners to use tech during a lecture. 

However exciting a new app or text might be, it can wait until after class. In those rare cases when it can’t, give nearby students a heads up. And if someone else’s smartphone use is distracting you, say something quietly and respectfully. It’s that easy. 

Why Most Students Run Out of Time to Study

Have you ever found yourself, the night before a major exam or due date for an essay, scrambling because you feel like you no longer have enough time to prepare? Most students have. It feels like no matter what you do, there’s never enough time to study.

Yet this can’t possibly be the case. Most professors issue a full syllabus the first day of class, explaining exactly when the essays are due and when the exams will be held. So why do so many students feel the pressure of a time crunch?

There are several potential pitfalls here, but the good news is you can learn to avoid them:

Why Students Run Out of Time

These are some of the biggest contributing factors to the persistent subjective time crunch felt by new college students:

  • Students don’t read the syllabus. First, students don’t bother reading the syllabus, so it’s practically a surprise when they hear about an essay that’s due or an exam that’s around the corner. Thankfully, this is a simple matter to correct; whenever you get the syllabus for the first time, read through it multiple times, and highlight the sections that seem most important. If anything seems confusing to you, ask the professor to clarify things early in the class.
  • Students fail to schedule important dates proactively. It’s also a problem that most students don’t use calendar software to schedule their most important upcoming dates proactively. Using a calendar app allows you to firmly schedule all future due dates and exam dates, so you can get automated reminders as those dates draw closer, keeping you on track. You could also rely on a physical planner, or a system involving sticky notes if you prefer—the point is to keep those important dates top-of-mind.
  • New students see cramming as a valid strategy. It’s common for new college students to think the best way to study for an exam is to “cram” the night before—in other words, staying up late into the night and studying as hard and long as possible, right before the exam. In practice, this strategy is terrible; it decreases your memory retention and often leaves you fatigued and sleep deprived for the exam. It’s much better to work in small chunks in the days and weeks leading up to the exam.
  • Young people are inclined to procrastinate. Procrastination is a common habit across all age groups and demographics, but it’s especially rampant among young people. New college students see an October 25 due date, and feel like it doesn’t matter on October 11. Beating procrastination can be tough, but you’ll have to find a way to do it if you want to succeed.
  • Some students underestimate the depth or complexity of the material. Some students give themselves a reasonable amount of time, but underestimate just how much they have to study or how much they have to do. This leaves them unable to seek help in time to make good use of it.
  • Ambitious students feel like their work is never enough. Finally, some students do adequately prepare, and in plenty of time to adhere to due dates, but they subjectively feel underprepared. Feeling more confident in your work and your abilities is something that will come with time and experience.

A Better Approach

If you’re interested in giving yourself as much time as possible, there are a few foundational pillars of success you can establish for yourself:

  • Review, understand, and schedule your landmark dates. Always take the time to read and understand the syllabus, then find a system you can use to schedule the landmark dates worthy of your attention in the future.
  • Spend a little time each day working. It’s good to set a goal, then spend a little time every day working toward that goal, rather than waiting to act on it until the last minute. This will help you in several areas, giving you insight into the true complexity and depth of the material, improving your memory retention, and giving you plenty of chances to talk with your professors if there’s something you don’t understand.
  • Pretend everything is due earlier than it is. Finally, work as if everything is due or issued a day earlier than it really is. If the test is Thursday, pretend like it’s Wednesday, and spend Tuesday doing your last-minute studies. This gives you an entire extra day to work with in case your primary strategy fails for any reason.

Everyone is unique, so it’s going to take time to discover and integrate the strategies that help you work proactively and avoid procrastination. Pay attention to the studying and scheduling tactics that work, and keep them integrated in your daily life.