Major student distractions: problems and solutions

By Sayyed Mohamed Muhsin

As educators, our foremost beneficiaries are unquestionably the students we serve. To ensure the highest quality of education delivery, understanding their perspectives—including the challenges they face and potential solutions—is vital. Furthermore, educators must continuously enhance their performance, remaining adaptable to evolving student expectations without becoming entrenched in outdated methodologies.

The widespread use of smartphones and social media addiction poses significant threats to student performance. It’s now common to witness individuals absorbed in their phones while walking, eating, jogging, or conversing. Unfortunately, students are not immune to these distractions; if anything, they may be even more vulnerable.

Recognizing a problem is the first step towards finding a solution. Subsequently, identifying the most appropriate course of action to solutions becomes paramount. Equally important is the role educators play in implementing these solutions, which necessitates a thorough understanding of students’ expectations and needs.

In light of these considerations, 200 students, comprising 124 female participants and 76 male participants were surveyed, by asking the following questions:

1. What stops you from focusing when you’re studying?

2. What methods do you use to maintain focus and reduce distractions?

3. Do you view yourself as a proficient reader? Please provide details to support your response.

4. From your perspective, how can educators help students in enhancing their study and reading habits?

The survey findings echo a broader global trend. This sample represents Generations Z and Alpha (ages 0-24), residing in the virtual global village with its challenges and opportunities. Referred to as the most distracted generations, they live in a world where continuous algorithm prompts boost swift clicks, scrolls, and swipes. The difficulty of sustaining focus during their studies appears as a universal experience shared by students across various regions.

It is worth noting that some respondents provided multiple reasons and solutions to the aforementioned questions. As a result, the total number of responses, in some instances, exceeded 200, while in other cases, students did not give a clear answer, resulting in a total number of responses less than 200.

What stops you from focusing when you’re studying?

The initial question posed to the student respondents was about the major distractions of the students. Based on the responses provided by participants, I classified the principal distractions and presented them in Table 1.

Table 1: Frequency of students’ response on reasons for distraction

No. Reasons for distraction Number of responses
1.  Phone111
2.  Sleepy/tired 30
3.  Friends 16
4.  Noisy environment 15
5.  Hunger/Skipping Meals17
6.  Overthinking/inner thoughts17
7.  Difficulty Understanding Subjects/Boring Classes/Not interested in Reading14
8.  Procrastination/Lack of Motivation/Laziness/Tardiness13
9.  Health Issues2
10.  Family and financial problems 2
11.  Homesickness1
12.  Work or Commitment with Co-curricular activities 3

Insights from a survey of 200 participants reveal key patterns regarding distractions in their lives. A striking 55.5 percent (111 respondents) point to mobile phones as the main culprit, highlighting their significant impact on attention spans. This underlines the notion that increased online presence correlates with reduced offline engagement. Addressing these concerns is vital not only for academic performance but also for overall wellbeing.

Beyond phones, 15 percent (30 respondents) cite drowsiness and tiredness, 8 percent (16 individuals) mention interruptions from friends, and 7.5 percent (15 individuals) note environmental noise as distractions. Hunger, skipping meals, overthinking, and inner thoughts account for 8.5 percent (17 individuals each). Academic challenges, such as difficulty in understanding subjects, boredom in classes, or lack of interest in reading, affect 7 percent (14 individuals). Procrastination, lack of motivation, laziness, and tardiness make up 6.5 percent (13 individuals).

Less common but noteworthy issues include health problems, family and financial concerns, homesickness, and commitments to co-curricular activities, each identified by 1-1.5 percent of respondents. In summary, the data showcases a diverse range of distractions.

What methods do you use to maintain focus and reduce distractions?

The second question centred on, “What methods do you use to maintain focus and reduce distractions?” The responses, derived from the lived experiences of the students, have been categorized and organized in the table below.

Table 2: Frequency of students’ response on sources for staying focused when studying

Sources for staying focusedNumber of responses
1. Avoiding phone distractions54
2. Choosing/creating a proper, neat, and quiet space22
3. Choosing to be alone20
4. Self-motivation19
5. Listening to calming music15
6. Eating snacks or staying hydrated14
7. Impact of teacher’s motivation11
8. Using the Pomodoro Technique11
9. Participating in group study9
10. Selecting interesting topics8
11. Taking notes7
12. Focusing on goals7
13. Considering deadlines7
14. Being time-conscious5
15. Studying in a library4
16. Practicing self-discipline4
17. Choosing appealing reading materials4
18. Observing others studying2
19. Wearing headphones to block noise2
20. Reflecting on parental support3
21. Revisiting intentions and remembrance of God6
22. Reflecting on relevant examples3
23. Listening to Quran3
24. Remembering Allah and seeking His help3
25. Using background noise (brown/white)2
26. Varying study locations2
27. Incorporating enjoyable games2
28. Reading ahead of class1
29. Participating in class activities1
30. Ensuring adequate sleep1

Table 2 provides valuable insights into the diverse methods students employ to maintain focus and minimize distractions in their academic pursuits. A significant 30.34 percent of respondents identify phone distractions as a ubiquitous challenge, addressing it through various measures such as placing the phone in another room, switching it off, activating “Do Not Disturb” mode, or disabling notifications. Additionally, 12.36 percent emphasize the importance of creating an optimal study environment, considering factors such as cleanliness and quietness.

The psychological dimension of focus is evident, with 11.24 percent of students opting for solitude to enhance concentration. Self-motivation emerges as a key driver for 10.67 percenrt of respondents, highlighting the critical role of individual determination in academic success. The table also reveals diverse strategies, from listening to calming music (8.43 percent) to employing the Pomodoro Technique (6.18 percent), emphasizing the personalized nature of focus-enhancing approaches.

External factors play a role as well, with 6.18% attributing focus to teacher motivation and 5.06 percent finding value in group study dynamics. Conversely, less-adopted strategies include being time-conscious, studying in a library, practicing self-discipline, and incorporating enjoyable games. Observing others studying, wearing headphones to block noise, and focusing on background noise are also strategies used by some students.

Some respondents emphasize the importance of mental and emotional aspects, as seen in initiatives such as “Reflecting on intentions and remembrance of God” (six responses) and “Remembering Allah and seeking His help” (three responses). These findings indicate that, for certain individuals, incorporating spiritual and mindfulness practices plays a role in maintaining focus. The data is valuable for educators and policymakers; it underscores the necessity of addressing diverse student needs for fostering conducive learning environments.

Are you a good reader? 

The following question inquired about participants’ self-evaluation of their reading habits, questioning whether they consider themselves to be good readers or not. Ninety-five respondents claimed to be good readers, while 90 expressed that they are not, and 15 opted for a neutral stance, indicating uncertainty about their reading proficiency.

Positive Responses:

A majority of students attributing proficiency highlighted various factors. Fast content comprehension was a key factor, cited by 31 respondents, showcasing a quick grasp of material. Other positive reasons included creating a peaceful reading environment (five responses), deriving passion and empathy from reading (one response), feeling excited and enthusiastic with engaging books (nine responses), considering reading as a personal hobby (nine responses), applying reading in real-life scenarios (five responses), and the act of reading itself, even if focus is a challenge (six responses). Additional positive aspects included getting immersed in reading (two responses), selecting easier books for enjoyment (one response), expressing a desire to read but lacking sufficient time (one response), enjoying reading alone (one response), using reading as a means to improve focus (two responses), parental motivation (four responses), finding enjoyment in reading (one response), and the practice of reading and taking notes (one response).

Negative Responses:

Conversely, students who perceived themselves as non-proficient readers pointed out several barriers. Laziness (two responses), skipping pages and only reading a few (four responses), feeling sleepy or bored (12 responses), difficulty in understanding content (15 responses), taking too much time to finish a book (three responses), not considering themselves as bookworms (five responses), easily getting distracted (two responses), a preference for fiction over non-fiction (three responses), language proficiency challenges (13 responses), difficulty in finding interesting books (two responses), a preference for group study over individual reading (one response), dissatisfaction with reading materials containing only white and black pages (one response), lack of focus (11 responses), forgetting what was read (two responses), a lack of passion for reading (eight responses), a middle school focus on science subjects (1 response), and a preference for visuals over text (three responses)— all these were cited as reasons for considering oneself a non-proficient reader.

The survey results reflect a diverse range of factors influencing students’ perceptions of their reading proficiency. Positive responses highlight a strong correlation between proficiency and factors such as quick content comprehension, personal enjoyment of reading, and practical applications of reading skills. On the other hand, negative responses underscore challenges like lack of focus, difficulty in understanding, and personal preferences. Educators and institutions may benefit from considering these factors when designing interventions or support systems to enhance students’ reading skills and confidence. Addressing both positive and negative aspects can contribute to a more comprehensive approach to literacy development.

How Educators Can Assist Students in Overcoming This Challenge?

From the 200 responses gathered, I have identified four specific forms of assistance that students consider effective strategies for educators in helping them overcome the challenges mentioned above. I categorized these four as “Major Steps” because they were consistently mentioned by a significant number of students, albeit in different phrasings. The strategies listed under “Additional Steps” were also suggested by students, though the number of students recommending them is lower compared to the Major Steps.

Major Steps

1. Moral Support and Motivation:

Many students reiterated that a lecturer’s significant contribution lies in providing motivation, encouragement, and support to enhance their learning journey. They expressed their desire for receiving more than just academic guidance, they also seek practical tips, tricks and moral support to face life’s challenges to become better individuals. Like anyone else, students highly appreciate feedback—both positive and constructive—as it fuels their drive to excel in their respective areas.

Motivational words from lecturers play a crucial role in connecting studying to personal desires with a positive mindset, paving the way for meaningful teacher–student relationships. The emotional support experienced through the demonstration of genuine concern and care for students, coupled with respect for their individual uniqueness and a sincere desire to understand their feelings and perspectives, is crucial. 

In today’s university environment, the relationship between lecturers and students often adheres strictly to formalities, lacking personal engagement in students’ affairs. Occasionally, an artificial gap is imposed, leading to a distinct separation where interactions are confined to ‘pure’ academic matters.

This detachment undermines the essence of education. To counter this challenge at the IIUM, proactive measures have been taken by assigning lecturers the role of Murabbi charged with the responsibility of tarbiyah—that is, the holistic care and nurturing of students. The university explicitly outlines in its appointment letter that academic staff members are not only expected to provide guidance in academic matters but also to educate regarding character, behaviour and moral conduct. In fact, the lecturer is described as “not merely a teacher (Mu’allim) or a scholar (‘Alim) but also a moral educator (Murabbi)” (Islamonweb).  

Students expressed that an optimistic and unbiased view of signifies approachability on the part of lecturers. When lecturers are approachable, they become a source of assistance without judgment. Addressing individual weaknesses and introducing confidence-building exercises were identified as constructive strategies. An approachable demeanour and easy accessibility are two additional components that many students find appealing. A ‘super strict nature’ helps no one because it widens the gap and results in alienation.

Amidst the escalating mental health crisis among young people, the need for emotional investment from teachers has become more imperative than ever. Classrooms must be safe and healing spaces for students to learn and experience new things. 

2. Engaging Classrooms with a Sense of Enjoyment:

Numerous students have expressed the desire for the classroom to be fun-filled and engaging, urging an atmosphere that is not overly serious or linear. They seek class activities that are not only exciting but also relevant to the topics being taught, forming a sense of joy. Dull classes, they contend, impose additional burdens on students. They argue that when learning is enjoyable, it captures student attention and keeps them curious. Having fun can enhance students’ memory, attention and motivation. 

3. Sustained Interaction:

Several students suggested that the more interactive the class, the more engaged and interesting it becomes. Incorporating quizzes, encouraging questions and answers, soliciting student opinions, sharing stories, allowing students to share their experiences, and prompting them to draw conclusions are crucial aspects of an engaging class. Additionally, asking students to read slides or books aloud during classes enhances participation and learning. Likewise, leveraging group discussions and open forums to facilitate a more interactive learning experience proves effective in encouraging students to actively share their thoughts and ideas. To promote proactive learning habits, lecturers can assign questions based on previously discussed articles or books, providing a nudge for students to establish study routines. 

Inactive students also deserve the opportunity to express themselves, even if it requires additional encouragement. Facilitating interactions through class exercises and competitive tasks related to the covered topics can be effective. Without such engagement, students may be physically present in class but mentally disengaged, eagerly awaiting its conclusion. In such instances, the classroom transforms into little more than a ‘cage’.

4. Enhanced Explanation through Real-life Examples:

A prevalent challenge shared by students is the rapid pace of lectures, possibly due to the need to cover extensive content before exams. This pace negatively impacts student understanding, with many either lagging behind or lacking an overall comprehension of the course content. Students express the need for explanations at a manageable pace, complemented by illustrative examples and exercises, besides thought-provoking questions during lectures. Clear and comprehensive explanations are considered indispensable, particularly for those facing focus issues while reading. Suggestions include integrating practical, real-life examples to enhance overall comprehension. 

The theories taught in classrooms should resonate with real-world implications and address community issues. The IIUM’s dedication to community engagement is exemplified through Synergised Students’ Activities programme. This initiative empowers students to address local community challenges pertinent to their coursework, with guidance from their lecturers. By serving as agents of change within their communities, students enrich their learning journey with deeper significance.

The bottom line is that educators need to include pauses, emphasize key points, and incorporate visual aids to enhance the overall effectiveness of the lecture.

Additional Steps

Other than the above, the students have suggested several other key points which they expect from educators, which are grouped below: 

1. Supplemental Resources and Study Tools:

Sitting through a one-hour (or more) lecture can be a monotonous experience for many. Therefore, it is crucial to explore a range of methods to effectively engage students. Utilizing videos during class is a recommended option to break the routine and offer a different perspective on the subject matter. Another effective strategy is to share relevant articles related to the lecture topic. Discussing these articles and providing insights will cultivate critical thinking and analytical skills among students. 

Creating study tools, such as concise summaries and mind maps, offers a structured and visual representation of information, facilitating easier review and retention of key points. 

Engaging Presentation Techniques:

Classroom slides should be regularly updated and enhanced to be visually appealing and attention-grabbing. Investing in visually appealing presentations can contribute significantly to capturing students’ attention. Additionally, teaching and guiding students on effective notetaking during lectures can assist them in better understanding and retaining the material. 

Group Discussions and Real-World Examples:

Group discussions around challenging subjects allow students to explain concepts to one another and collaborate in understanding complex topics. Another method involves elucidating theories and points by relating them to real-world examples, current events and everyday life situations. This approach helps students connect theoretical knowledge to practical scenarios.

Simple Language:

Language considerations are crucial, particularly for non-native speakers. Lecturers should employ straightforward language when explaining subjects or readings to ensure clarity and minimize confusion. Utilizing multiple words and synonyms can be helpful for students.

Reading Culture:

Offering compelling book recommendations and conveying enthusiasm for reading during classes can motivate students to delve into suggested readings. Simplified versions of lengthy books, paired with individual book reviews as assignments, cater to tight schedules and limited reading resources. Additionally, sharing personal experiences and reviews of recently read books by lecturers encourages students to explore them.

Conclusion 

In conclusion, it is crucial to acknowledge the significance of listening to students in order to understand their challenges and perspectives in finding solutions. As the immediate partners in students’ educational journey, it becomes essential for educators to actively evaluate and consider implementing the strategies suggested by students in their care. ***

(Dr. Sayyed Mohamed Muhsin is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Jurisprudence at the International Islamic University Malaysia)