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Tools That Limit Distraction May Raise Student Performance in Online Classes – Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription) (blog)

For students taking courses online, the endless distractions of the Internet can be a hindrance to success. But using software to limit those diversions can make a big difference.

That’s the takeaway from a new study, which found that limiting distractions can help students perform better and also improve course completion.

A paper describing the study, “Can Behavioral Tools Improve Online Student Outcomes? Experimental Evidence From a Massive Open Online Course,” was published by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute this month.

Richard W. Patterson, the author of the paper and a doctoral candidate in policy analysis and management at the university, says online courses and degree programs can provide opportunities for students who may not otherwise have access to higher education, but distraction and procrastination throw up barriers to their success.

Mr. Patterson, who has encountered “a constant barrage of distractions” himself as he tried to be productive on his computer, decided to examine the role behavioral tools could play in solving the problem.

He examined the online behavior of 657 students who participated in a nine-week MOOC on statistics offered by Stanford University. Students were assigned either to a control group or to use one of three online time-management tools with different approaches: commitment, reminder, and focus. Students were surveyed both before and after the course.

The commitment tool allowed students to set a daily limit on the amount of time they wanted to spend on distracting destinations, like Facebook, BuzzFeed, or shopping websites. Each morning they were sent an email that allowed them to adjust the amount of time. If they exceeded the time limit, they had to go through a process to unblock individual sites.

The reminder tool would send students a notification with a link to the course website after each half hour that they spent on distracting time.

With the focus tool, students were asked when they logged on to the course website for the first time each day if they wanted to block distractions for 15, 30, or 60 minutes so they could have uninterrupted study time.

Findings were only statistically significant for the commitment tool, which improved students’ course completion, homework submission, and scores. The tool increased course completion by 40 percent, and its users spent 24 percent more time on the course.

Students using the commitment device found that spending time on distracting sites was much less enjoyable with the software, Mr. Patterson says. “The idea behind the commitment device is that it makes impatient behavior more costly or more difficult, and that’s consistent with the way that students seem to be responding.”

Mr. Patterson thinks the commitment tool was the most effective option because it combined elements of the other two. It had a reminder element, in that students were sent an email every morning, and a focus element, in that they were blocked from sites once they’d exceeded their limit.

One of the most surprising findings was that the strongest students benefited from the software the most. The students who were most likely to benefit from the commitment tool were the ones who reported that finishing assignments or tests on time was “very” or “extremely” important to them. Mr. Patterson had expected the the weakest or least-prepared students would be the main beneficiaries. That finding indicates that even the students who are most prepared still struggle with distractions, he says, and that time management is “a pretty universal problem.”

Although Mr. Patterson doesn’t think those types of tools alone can change low rates of online course completion, he does hope his study will encourage further exploration of the topic.

Figuring out why students don’t complete online courses, he says, would benefit people who don’t have access to other college opportunities.

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