Guest Post: Helping Students Build Tech Discipline and Improve Productivity by Sheryl Bundy

Professor Sheryl Bundy
Professor Sheryl Bundy

While it’s no surprise that students use their phones to access Canvas and assignment details, a recent study found that nearly 40 percent of students use that device to complete their coursework. Consider that for a moment. The response to a reading you assigned, the article summary, the essay involving research. Written entirely using a phone.

Should that be a cause for concern, given work schedules, family obligations, and the fact that phones can do just about anything? Being able to do out-of-class assignments while managing life seems like an aid, rather than detriment to productivity. However, when we consider the research already linking phones to reduced comprehension and performance—even reduced cognitive capacity, just by having the phone physically near—this particular approach to engaging in coursework seems ill advised.

Too, because phones are the primary device used to interact through social media, other well-researched issues surface. Educational consultant Ana Homayoun, for instance, warns about productivity issues that stem from students distracted by their devices in her book, Social Media Wellness. One problem is that having a phone nearby while doing coursework is a distraction that people don’t properly perceive as such: “Thirteen messages later, you are still on math problem #3,” Homayoun writes, “and you’ve convinced yourself the past half-hour has been dutifully spent on math homework.” Thus students may think they’ve spent several hours on that review paper, but that’s after multiple distractions coupled with having to pick up where they’d left off.

With all the ways phones impact students’ work habits and productivity, how can educators help? For Homayoun, there are three key areas students need to attend to. She insists students practice monotasking, develop good “workflow systems,” and sleep. These may seem like no-brainers, but consider that students’ adult role models likely follow the same path (too much multitasking, not enough sleep). Homayoun asks us to consider the ways we might help students’ efforts. For instance, when we allow midnight deadlines via Canvas, what are we conveying to students? Granted, they could turn things in well before midnight, but the posted deadline suggests we expect that one should be up that late in the first place. Nowadays, my deadlines are 9 pm. After that, I’d like students to get some sleep, and I tell them so.

Another practice to reflect on is how we explain out-of-class work. We might believe we are saving valuable class time in announcing, “Just read it all on Canvas!” but according to Homayoun, studies show students take a half an hour nightly just to discover what their homework even is. She explains, “Students who used a half-hour or more per day to figure out all their assignments were spending almost three hours of potential work time (or more) every week simply to manage workflow.” Students might also spend lots of time discerning the myriad ways coursework must be submitted. That’s a part of life—to learn how to submit things, name files, and follow procedures. It seems important that we are aware of how much time it takes to do that correctly across multiple courses and disciplines. To aid students, my Canvas sites have a landing page with a “cheat sheet”—a compressed version of policies—so students don’t have to click deep into the syllabus to find the information.

There are many other ways to help students’ productivity:

  • Make them aware of focus apps like Forest, which can help them build discipline when deadlines loom.
  • Talk about ways to manage files, projects and workflow. It’s practical and useful for future careers. Or make it a bigger deal: a group project I did last semester put workflow—and group decision making and interaction—at the forefront of the project.
  • Go analog. I require my COM 101 students to buy the $3 Moraine Valley student planner, and allow them a few minutes at the start of the week to think about their overall To Do lists.

Sheryl Bundy is a Professor of Communications. If you’d like to contact Sheryl, please contact the CTL and we will forward your message to Sheryl. Be sure to reference this post in your message.