Experts shed light on strategies to deal with students with short attention spans

With technology becoming an essential tool for learning, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns about the impact of online learning on students is increasing.

And while the situation remains unsettled, schools and teachers are constantly trying to implement new teaching methods to keep up with the online environment – a platform that often leads to distractions among younger children.

In the past two years, we learned how to look at technology as our friend and not our enemy, says Layal Azizi, a Social and Emotional Counselor at Qatar Academy Al Wakra (QAW) – a school under the Pre-University Education (PUE) of Qatar Foundation.

We knew students would be distracted by watching online videos or by playing online games, and for this reason, it was essential to use the same tool to grab their attention, and to avoid them disliking online learning or breaking their trust by enforcing disciplinary measures.

She said that their school developed many ways to keep students interactive through online learning games, and giving them tasks and activities that they go through as a class, to give each student the chance to express what they did in the process. This actually helps in keeping them engaged and involved in their own learning.

Jody R Roberson, a psychologist from The Learning Center – a specialised centre for supporting students with mild to moderate learning needs across Qatar Foundation schools, and also part of PUE, emphasised that holding attention can be difficult for many students in an online environment, and that’s why teachers must implement and use engaging strategies that are developmentally appropriate to each level.

In order to keep students engaged, lessons should have a degree of stimulation and should build up in a way that can create anticipation for the outcome or the end as it is one of the main components for developing vigilance or focus.

He said that to create anticipation, teachers need to use strategies like teasers, reminders and references to the coming point. Giving students something to look forward to or to focus on is key to holding attention just like the ‘big reveal’ after a commercial break on TV so that we watch all the boring commercials to see what happens next in the TV programme.

Excessive use of technology

Other concerns suggest that students’ creativity fell due to online learning and the excessive use of technology. Yet, Roberson stressed the importance of keeping the conversations going between the students and teachers online.

Excessive technology can affect creativity when the expectation is that only one correct rote response is required, and the grade is the only outcome for the lesson. Creativity or the development of ideas comes from discussions that are a part of the learning environment.

Thinking and contemplating thoughts and ideas can be developed through rich discussions with there being no right or wrong answers in a discussion. Many teachers are able to foster creativity in a purposefully focused discussion that allows students to explore ideas even during online classes.

As a school counsellor for Middle Years Programme and Diploma Programme at QAW, Azizi said that the anxiety spurred by the pandemic among students left them sceptical about core matters they have always taken for granted. This is why social and emotional well-being needs to be given top priority in schools in a post-pandemic world.

School councillors everywhere, including myself, receive an overwhelming number of calls for assistance from parents and students as the pandemic put students – for the first time – in a situation where they became anxious about getting sick, or of one of their parents falling ill, or for not being able to keep up with online learning.

Academically, she said that students will always catch up, and education methods and standards will keep changing and evolving accordingly. But, if a student can’t cope with their feelings or suffers from isolation, this can lead to serious psychological issues.

While Roberson agreed on the importance of placing emotional well-being at the forefront of education priorities in a post-pandemic world, he also thinks that technology needs to be integrated in a meaningful way into the classroom of tomorrow.

I think if we are able to teach students the appropriate uses of devices like smartboards, laptops and tablets, we can significantly enrich the learning opportunity for students.

As educators, Roberson pointed out the need to teach students how to utilise technology for more than a video game, a YouTube video or Google search. He said that helping students create their own technology-rich projects that contribute to the learning of the classroom should be a goal.

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