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Three Simple Methods to Overcome Student Distractions: Especially for Non-Traditional Students

girl with yellow stars circleing around her head illustrationThe competition to maintain the attention of our students is as fierce as auto insurance commercials and NCAA basketball. Every instructor confronts a daily battle to keep the student actively engaged and focused on coursework.  Student distractions are legion.

The meteoric rise of distance learning, online degrees, and hybrid classes have created a new pipeline of student demographics—the adult, non-traditional student. With this new demographic proliferating colleges and universities, there are also new obstacles for deans and their faculty to overcome.

Most of the students in this demographic are working adults, with families, ministries, and other obligation that make attending and being focused in class a tedious affair. Methods and models of teaching that were effective in the 80s and 90s seem obsolete when confronted with the iPhone/Google generation. Methods today must consider the cultural dynamic of the age. Educators can employ many skills and tactics, but three are essential to overcoming distracted students:

  1. Engage

For many non-traditional students, class often happens at the end of a long day, after their minds have been filled with the cares and worries of work and home life.

To engage the student in the course content, begin class by posing a thought-provoking question that loosely ties to the coursework.

The question should be crafted in a manner that is relevant, timely and generates difference of opinions. After a moment to reflect and write down those reflections, the instructor then allows each student to share their answers.

Continue the engagement by asking questions (e.g., play devil’s advocate) to spark a debate, and allow different opinions to be expressed. This will connect the student not only with the course content, but also with the other classmates. Such group discussion is often an excellent tool for engagement, and engagement is a key to overcoming student distractions.

  1. Entertain

Many instructors lose battles with technology they never knew they were fighting. The hidden phone in the lap, the Facebook window cleverly hidden on a laptop, the Candy Crush Saga going to the 18th level on the hidden tablet defeats many unaware instructors.

Because we are living in an increasingly visual society, our methods for presentation should compete effectively with any technology distractions we may encounter. PowerPoints, animations, Prezi presentations are all effective, but the best tool is the prepared, prayerful, and passionate instructor.

The days of instructors giving marathon lectures, to which the student endures hours of mundane talk, are gone. There needs to be a collaborative effort and syncopation between the instructor and students.

Here are just a few effective ways to do this:

  • Give awards and prizes for effective participation;
  • Give the class a catchphrase that reflects the content of the class;
  • Actively use social media to keep students engaged with each other and the instructor;
  • Employ skits and role plays if possible, allowing students to use their own gifting and creativity.

The more you engage and entertain the student in a content-relevant manner, the easier step three will be.

  1. Educate

If the student has been engaged and entertained but hasn’t learned anything, then class time is a waste of time. In this effort, use assessment tools to gauge the leaning of each student. One simple method is to ask each student at the end of class to write down what they learned that day and how the instructor could have best presented the information. Of course, allow the student to be anonymous to promote earnestness.

In addition to assessment, spend as much time, or more, preparing to teach as the class work you give each student. Prayerful meditation, exhaustive study, and constant practice on presentation will help overcome any drifting minds.

Also, become familiar with the learning style, learning goals, and the psychology of each student so that you can fine-tune your instructional methods to best suit each student. For example, the goals and psychology of a pastor working toward a doctorate is very different from a grandmother going back to school to achieve the degree she never attained.

Pursue your own professional development; it is essential to staying abreast of the latest teaching methods, trends, and assessment tools. Administrators that skimp on professional development will eventually develop an ineffectual faculty. Thus, through a program of faculty development, administrators play a role in avoiding student distractions.

These three methods may seem overly simplified and rudimentary, but the most advanced methods are rooted in simplicity. Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

These simple methods if used effectively, will give you a significant advantage over the distractions of social media, weariness, and apathy. With this accomplished, you are free to pursue the true goal of a Christian educator—to move your students into activation of learned skills for ministry in a modern world.

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Rev. T. Tyrone Tyson is the  Director of Recruitment and Development and Professor of Homiletics at Carolina Christian College.  He is also the Pastor of Agape Baptist Fellowship in Winston-Salem, NC.

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