Focusing is Not What it Used to Be

January 27, 2014
Allen Rabinovich

Photo Credit: Emilie Ogez

Photo Credit: Emilie Ogez

Take a few seconds to think back to a typical evening in 9th grade, the most important school year according to research published in Education. I want you to recall a detailed series of events starting with you sitting down to complete a math homework assignment and finishing the second you put your pencil down. Go ahead, take a minute if you have to, I’ll wait.


Depending on your age, you might have radically different visions of that particular evening. If you were born before 1982, your memory probably went something like this:


Sat down at my desk and opened my marble notebook to today’s math lecture where I copied down Ms. Euclid’s homework problems. Oh gosh, 25 problems in one night? What does she think we are, robots? Oh well, I’ll pop open my textbook, turn on the radio, and get through these before it gets too late and my mom comes in and gives me a piece of her mind. Okay the first three were rough, but I can see a pattern developing here, as logical proof would have it. Phew, 45 minutes for one math homework, I really hope Ms. E just had an unusually bad day. It’s 10:15 pm: time to wash up and head to bed.


If you were born after 1982, especially as a millennial, that was a very unfamiliar description. Maybe it goes something like this:


Sat down at my desk and opened my Macbook to get on Ms. Euclid’s teacher site. 25 problems for tomorrow, has she lost her mind? Oh well, I’ll just check out some of my friend’s new instas and tweets before I get to work. Okay, 45 minutes later I open up my geometry textbook, didn’t waste too much time, go me. Three problems later, my pocket is vibrating up a storm, who is it? Yes Jessica, I was there when Mark slipped and spilled his sloppy joe all over the cafeteria, you don’t have to keep reminding me. Well, since I have my iPhone out already, let me look through some status updates. Okay, I’m back to work only 30 minutes later, ugh how do I do these type of questions again? 10 more problems out of the way, this is really hard stuff. Actually, why should I keep my math issues to myself? New tweet: “Ms. Euclid hates her students #mathstruggle” Refresh, refresh, refresh, 2 retweets! Finally done with Ms. E’s homework of doom, thank goodness. That only took 2 hours (it doesn’t count, since I was online for a lot of it, I’m not that dumb).  Plus, it’s only midnight. I’ll text a few friends and go wash up.


I know this might be generalizing a bit, but there are some lessons we can learn from these two rather different recollections:

1. Focus means doing one thing, and one thing only, without distraction.

2. For every distraction, it takes an average of 25 minutes to get refocused.

3. While studying under distractive conditions, aka multitasking, retention and learning are greatly reduced.


The message to take away here is that higher standards should not be the sole blame for rapidly decreasing test scores. The way students are approaching their studies is becoming more and more detached, so it’s time to take control of our study habits.

But don’t lose hope as a young student! Next week, I will be posting several strategies I utilize with my students in order to maintain focus in an age of constant stimuli and FOMO (fear of missing out). Stay tuned.


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