School Online, Multitasking, and More

Delaney Ruston – This month the Seattle Times reported that 8% of students in the Seattle Public Schools have not regularly participated in online school this fall.  The article states that the district believes that half of the students who aren’t showing up have issues with their devices or connectivity. The district has given out many devices to students and gets internet service to families, but there are still many unknowns about all the reasons affecting participation. It’s worth noting that in other parts of the country this percentage is even higher. 

Erggg, there are so many challenges happening in homes around online schooling. Besides the issues stated above, there are a host of other challenges like: parents who are working and unable to help their kids during the day, such as helping them stay on task; the thousands of students with special needs who are unable to get the support they may have received at school; teens dealing with low motivation issues; those who have gotten into a pattern of staying up late and missing classes online, and the list goes on.

It is so important that we talk with our kids about the different ways people are struggling right now. Seeing beyond our homes is key to building empathy in these rugged times. It is easy to get focused on all the ways we are personally suffering when many others may have it far worse.

Staying on task and paying attention in a classroom online when pulled by many tabs and often phones nearby is intensely challenging for those participating in online school. The new, popular game “Among Us,” conversations with friends, online shopping, and much more is pulling at many. I devote a whole chapter in my new book, Parenting in the Screen Age, to helping with “Homework Hygiene,” which is when parents help their children develop effective practices around homework. I also have many sections in the book about strategies to help students stay focused during class time despite the many tech distractions easily accessible.

Something else I’ve heard is that many teachers don’t require kids to put on their video, and kids have told me they log in and then turn off their videos and do things like “go back to sleep” or “walk away from the class.”

This week I interviewed a 10th-grade girl who told me that she found herself tuning out in her online math class these days. She said this is one of her least favorite subjects, and she has a hard time processing the lecture via this remote method. Meanwhile, she is on her phone more. She told me, “It only hurts me to be on my phone, and when I was in school, knowing the teacher would get mad if we were on our phones forced me to pay attention and not be on my phone, and that was helpful.” 

She also told me that she could tell when the other students were on their phones if their video was on. I thought it was interesting that she thought teachers could not tell that students were on their phones. Having spoken with a lot of teachers, I assure you, they can tell.  She also shared that she can see some peers looking at other tabs by how their eyes darted around. 

One mom of a 3rd grader I spoke to said before going online, her son struggled in school, but now it is even more. She is thinking of switching to homeschooling. There are many households where parents are cutting back on work to focus on helping their kids learn, and I think about those homes in which that ability is not a reality. 

I want to share some science and then some solutions that kids have shared when it comes to studying online.

Recently I interviewed psychologist and researcher Larry Rosen, PhD, and we talked about an experiment he did some years ago looking at how often students got off task when studying online. The study had to do with homework, but it is still a good experiment to discuss with your kids to talk about both online school and online homework. Rosen explained the study it to me:

“We trained observers, which were just students in my class, and asked them to ask three friends or relatives that were in middle school, high school, and college to let them watch them study. The observers had a clipboard. They told the subject they would be sitting behind them, and they wanted them to study for 15 minutes, something really important. “

“Then the observer said, go ahead and start and set their clock for one minute. At the one minute mark, they looked at the participants’ screen and wrote down whether the person was studying or not. They wrote down what the main website open and a bunch of other things at the same time. And they did this every minute for 15 minutes. “

The researchers suspected that because they had told them that they should study something important and were looking over their shoulders, they would have stayed on task for 15 minutes.

He and his team found instead that participants, on average, stayed on task just 6 minutes before switching to a new tab. In that 15-minutes study interval, all three groups —  middle, high school, and college students — had identical study patterns. Wow, all ages were so similar! 

Keep in mind that not all participants switched off-task this quickly (and, of course, some were even quicker to go off task). 

Rosen went on to say that, 

“We also asked them what their college GPA was because that was the only constant metric we could get across all three groups, and not surprisingly, those who studied more of the 15 minutes had a higher GPA. Also, those people using less technology during the day also generally correlated to higher GPAs.” 

The abstract from the published study includes the following, “…students with relatively high use of study strategies were more likely to stay on-task than other students. And the authors recommended … teaching students metacognitive strategies regarding when interruptions negatively impact learning.”

So, what are some solutions? 

You might start by looking (or relooking) at the article from several months ago titled Tips For Improving Study Time During Covid-19. In it, I detail ten concrete ideas to help your kids and teens.

I also have a few insights that students mentioned to me recently. 

A 10th-grade boy in Seattle shared was he does, which is to “Treat online school like normal school, and get out of bed for Zoom calls because you will be more productive.”

I spoke with a 5th grader who shared the way he stays on task during school time, 

“If you think of something that you’re gonna do after school, like, soccer, or learning how to do Rubik’s Cube, or hang out with your friends, I let that help me get through. And I say, (to myself) you’ll just feel more proud, you’ll be like I did it, I worked hard in school, instead of being bored in school the whole day, making school feel super long.”

Here are some questions to get a conversation started:

  1. Talk about the study I refer to above and ask them if they were surprised that college students had just as hard of a time staying on task while studying as younger students. 
  2. What things do teachers do to make online class time more engaging? (One 7th grader told me that he is “really competitive” and likes one teacher who includes Jeopardy-type activities during class time. 
  3. What classes do you find hard to stay on task?
  4. If you were a teacher, would you have a policy where video has to be on for all students, why or why not?
  5. If you were a teacher, what things would you do to make class time more engaging?
  6. What strategies do you use to help you stay on task? And parents, you too.
  7. How long can you spend studying something before checking the internet for something else?

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