Student Distraction on the Rise?
A survey of Advanced Placement, National Writing Program and secondary school teachers conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reveals decidedly mixed opinions on the effects digital technology is having on students’ learning and research abilities and skills.
Though 77% said digital search tools have had a “mostly positive” impact on students’ research habits, 87% believe that reliance on them is creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.” Moreover, 64% of the more than 2,000 middle and high school teachers surveyed said that today’s digital technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically,” according to a Pew Internet Project press release.
Having access to a greater depth and breadth of information on topics that interest them and the availability of educational materials in “engaging multimedia formats” is leading many students “to become more self-reliant researchers.”
On the other hand, teachers expressed concerns that students are overly dependent on search engines and have problems judging the quality of online information and sources. They also expressed doubts about the general level of literacy of today’s students, diminished critical thinking capacity, “the increasing distractions pulling at students,” poor time management skills, and the ease with which they can plagiarize or borrow from the work of others.
The teachers responding said that students now have access to so much information that many students find it overwhelming. Hence, research for most students has been reduced to “Googling.” As a result, teachers surveyed said they’re spending class time with students discussing how search engines work, how to evaluate the credibility and reliability of online content and sources, and how to improve their search skills. “They also spend time constructing assignments that point students toward the best online resources and encourage the use of sources other than search engines,” according to Pew Project findings.
Of those responding to the survey, 94% said their students are “very likely” to use Google or other online search engines to complete a typical research assignment, far and away ahead of all other sources they were asked about. Following is a list of online sources teachers said their students were “very likely” to use to complete a research assignment, in descending order:
- Google or other online search engine (94%)
- Wikipedia or other online encyclopedia (75%)
- YouTube or other social media sites (52%)
- Their peers (42%)
- Spark Notes, Cliff Notes, or other study guides (41%)
- News sites of major news organizations (25%)
- Print or electronic textbooks (18%)
- Online databases such as EBSCO, JSTOR, or Grolier (17%)
- A research librarian at their school or public library (16%)
- Printed books other than textbooks (12%)
- Student-oriented search engines such as Sweet Search (10%)
Virtually all (99%) of AP and NWP teachers responding agreed that Internet access enables students to access a wider range of resources than had been true for past generations, and 65% agreed that the Internet makes today’s students more self-sufficient researchers.
Yet 76% “strongly agree” that Internet search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information and produce results quickly and easily. With 83% agreeing that most students find the amount of information available online “overwhelming,” 71% believe that today’s digital technologies “discourage students from using a wide range of sources when conducting research.”
“While some frame these issues as stemming directly from digital technologies and the particular students they teach, others suggest the concerns actually reflect a slow response from parents and educators to shape their own expectations and students’ learning environments in a way that better reflects the world today’s students live in,” Pew Project analysts noted.
Are today’s students fundamentally different from those of previous generations? According to Pew survey results 47% agreed and 52% disagreed with the statement that “today’s students are really no different than previous generations, they just have different tools through which to express themselves.”
Overwhelming majorities of surveyed teachers also agreed with the assertions that “today’s digital technologies are creating an easily distracted generation with short attention spans” (87%) and “today’s students are too ‘plugged in’ and need more time away from their digital technologies” (86%). Two-thirds (64%) agree with the notion that ‘today’s digital technologies do more to distract students than to help them academically.’”
Some teachers in focus groups “commented on the connection they see between students’ ‘overexposure’ to technology and the resulting lack of focus and diminished ability to retain knowledge they see among some students. “Time management is also becoming a serious issue among students,” some teachers said. According to them, “today’s digital technologies not only encourage students to assume all tasks can be finished quickly and at the last minute, but students also use various digital tools at their disposal to ‘waste time’ and procrastinate.”