Digital distraction and information overload: A barrier or an aid to college readiness?

Teen male sitting on school steps looking at cellphone

My son started 9th grade this year and before we know it, he will be applying to college. Will he be ready? Will I be ready?

It is now well-accepted that college readiness entails a lot more than just acquiring content knowledge and meeting academic standards. Equally important are learning strategies and techniques – those important skills that include things like time management, study skills, organization, grit, self-awareness, and the ability to focus and minimize distractions.

We are very fortunate that my son’s high school provides a lot of support, rigorous classes and many opportunities for him to pursue his interests and hone his interpersonal skills. However, I’ve noticed a “sink or swim” attitude among the teachers with regard to students’ learning strategies and techniques. Many of his teachers expect that students are ready to handle the rigorous requirements of high school and can handle the multitasking and coordination of their course demands along with their extracurricular activities and social life. These skills are not overtly covered in middle school, when students are forming important learning habits that can shape the rest of their educational career.

One thing I noticed in particular is my son’s susceptibility to digital distraction. His smart phone and iPad are both very useful tools to complete his work (e.g., his graphing calculator app, his ability to get assignments from Google Classroom), yet these are also his biggest distractions.  My son is a big sports fan and is immersed in Fantasy Football. As I observe him doing his homework, I can see how difficult it is for him to avoid checking his ranking or reading texts from friends. Use of information technology is an important skill for college and career success, but it also provides a great temptation for distraction and procrastination. As a concerned parent and researcher, I did a little research to see if anything had been written about the impact of digital distraction on college readiness.

The first thing I learned is that my son is certainly not alone – according to a recent survey reported in the Huffington Post, approximately 86% of high schools students said that they procrastinate on school assignments. Most of the surveyed students cited the reasons for their procrastination were distraction or getting overwhelmed and not knowing where to start. High school males were the most likely to say they procrastinate because they don’t like their school work. This is not the case with my son, who for the most part enjoys learning (although he frequently grumbles about the amount of homework he is assigned). My son’s procrastination is nearly entirely due to digital distraction.

I was very interested to learn that the problem of digital distraction and information overload is so pervasive that there is a research group dedicated to it. The website for the Information Overload Research Group cites that information overload cost the U.S. economy at least $997 billion per year in reduced productivity and a loss of 25% of the working day for most knowledge workers. So if digital distraction and information overload have such a profound impact on productivity, what is the cost on student education and learning?

According to this New York Times article, the detrimental effects of digital distraction on learning can be attributed to the fact that students are becoming habituated to constantly switching tasks, which can have long-term effects on their ability to sustain their attention and focus on one thing. Others disagree and believe that multitasking is preparing our students’ brains for the fast-paced, complex world where they will be increasingly required to sift through and make sense of massive amounts of information.

So, what is the verdict? Should I make my son hand over his cell phone when he comes home from school to minimize his digital distractions while he is doing homework? While I am still uncertain about whether digital distraction will be beneficial or detrimental to his college readiness and future success in the long-term, in the short term I will let his grades determine whether or not he gets to keep his devices.


About the Author
Jennifer Kobrin, Ed.D.

Jennifer Kobrin, Ed.D.

Jennifer L. Kobrin is a former research scientist at Pearson whose primary role was developing and undertaking a research agenda to explore the promise of learning progressions for improving assessment, instruction, and teacher development. Dr. Kobrin was previously a research scientist at the College Board where she led research efforts to collect evidence of the validity of the SAT, and conducted research on factors related to college readiness and college success. She has co-authored several book chapters on educational assessment and validity, and her work has been published in Educational and Psychological Measurement, Educational Assessment, and Assessing Writing. Dr. Kobrin is an active member of the National Council on Measurement in Education, the American Educational Research Association, and the Northeastern Educational Research Association. She holds a doctorate in Educational Statistics and Measurement from Rutgers University, and a master’s degree in Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation from Boston College. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferKobrin