Too many distractions?

It’s time to study for that exam in two days … but first, you should watch that new video, look at some food pictures posted on Instagram, Google the top 10 best chocolate desserts and check your twitter feed. Sound familiar? Last year, psychology professors Brian Galla and Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania and Sidney D’Mello of the University of Notre Dame teamed up to develop the Academic Diligence Task, aimed at measuring and improving students’ academic perseverance in the face of today's numerous technological distractions.

The researchers enlisted 921 high-school seniors with various academic, social and cultural backgrounds. The students completed a computer-based test consisting of five successive four-minute sessions, where participants had the choice to do simple math problems on one side of the screen or watch videos and play games on the other. The researchers concluded that those who stay focused on the math problems demonstrate more self-control to work hard and achieve long-term goals. They are also more likely to have a higher high-school GPA and graduate from college.

Self-control describes a situation where an individual takes action to change his or her current environment, allowing them to manage his or her own subsequent behavior according to Julie Slowiak, a UMD psychology professor. Slowiak has done research on factors influencing work-task performance.

UMD junior Claire Olsen, a teaching social studies major, has observed from her classes and experiences that individuals are becoming used to constant stimulation from technology and being immediately entertained.

“It is important for students to struggle and learn from their mistakes without turning to a distraction,” Olsen said. “By not taking the easy way out, students will remember things.”

Slowiak shared Olsen’s view on this trend.

“Students gravitate toward the immediate gratification of social interaction and entertainment provided by technology in contrast to the often delayed, larger positive rewards for engaging in studying and other academic-related behaviors,” Slowiak said.

Slowiak believes this mindset can lead to inappropriate behaviors in education, such as lying, cheating or plagiarism. These behaviors lead to immediate results such as completing a paper, but they also have negative long-term consequences such as receiving a failing grade or academic suspension.

Olsen credits the lack in perseverance among students to these individuals being disconnected from what they are learning.

Professor Dan Glisczinski, Olsen’s professor in Educational Psychology, agrees.

Glisczinski teaches how when people learn or experience something interesting, their brain releases dopamine and adrenaline. When they experience a similar sensation in the future, they remember, “Hey, that was cool.”

The reticular activating system looks for something that registers, and students pay attention to it. These occurrences in the brain allow students to prioritize what is interesting to them, though the experience differs for each student.

“Students should be engaged in what they are learning and (be) allowed to make decisions about how they want to learn,” Olsen said. “When they are emotionally and mentally connected, it will remove them from the ‘zoned out’ state and bring out their energy.”

Even if technology can be a distraction for students, it also has its place as a tool for knowledge and connectivity according to Glisczinski. To support his point, Glisczinski compared an encyclopedia to a twitter feed.

“People receive multiple points of input,” Glisczinski said. “They can compare opinions, how the opinions were expressed, and follow hyperlinks for more investigation.”

In the face of technology and its negative or positive effects on education, Slowiak maintains it is in the individual’s power to persevere a positive effect.

“Setting goals, giving yourself reminders, and keeping track of your progress are all examples of behaviors that can improve one's ability to self-manage their behavior and be successful.”


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