On Curbing Smartphone Use for a More Conducive Learning Environment

A child was at play in the wilderness on a hot summer day. They were instructed to be home before dark. Otherwise, they would go to bed without dinner. To return home, the child had to walk along a narrow path. They’d almost made it the entire way back when a strange creature approached them and told of a spring nearby. It being hot and all, the child went. But, the spring was further than the creature had suggested, and by the time the child returned home, it was well after dark. They were sent to bed on an empty stomach. The next day, on their way home, the child decided to return to the spring … again.

The narrow path from the anecdote might represent an assignment deadline; it might be a self-imposed revision period ahead of an evaluation; or, it could simply be an assigned reading. Whatever one’s narrow path might be, it is oh so easy to deviate from it. In 2021, the average US smartphone user received approximately 50 push notifications per day (Business of Apps). Once users find themselves on whatever app they’ve received a notification from, they’re then subject to targeted, tailored material that is deployed and presented with only one purpose: to keep the users there, indefinitely—to keep you off your path. And with smartphones and other common devices, the irony is that the very instruments that distract users could also be one of the most useful tools they have at their disposal. How many times have you unlocked your phone to do something specific, i.e., verify a deadline or send an email, and inadvertently fallen into a bottomless scroll-hole?

Well … so, too, has everyone!

Online learning is generally self-directed, and, as a result, requires certain levels of autonomy and discipline. But with distractions constantly beckoning you away from the path, how can you maintain your trajectory and ultimately arrive at your intended destination?

Here are some tips and tricks to cultivate an effective learning space and promote attentiveness.

The smartphone is yours; you are not the smartphone’s!

Let’s address the “elephant in the room” of distractions: smartphones.

Statistics are hardly necessary. One needs only look around to understand the ubiquitous nature of smartphones. However, smartphones can be used to enhance the learning experience. For example, instructors might invite students to use their devices to participate in a real-time quiz or to share different multimedia. Unfortunately, such usage represents only a fraction of a smartphone’s capability. So, how then might learners limit their digital distractions? Here are some options:

  1. Create separation. The simplest tactics are often the most effective. If your smartphone is in a different room, you physically cannot reach it. If, as a learner, you know that your smartphone is not necessary to accomplish a particular lesson or task, then it would be advisable that you leave it somewhere you cannot see it—or hear it! To achieve that last part, you could set your phone on Vibrate Only or Do Not Disturb mode.
  2. Clean it up. The average smartphone holds more than eighty apps (buildfire). Apps are often downloaded and forgotten or used temporarily and then abandoned. But smartphone apps are designed so as to not be forgotten. That is, even an unused app will continue to send push notifications to its users. So, delete the surplus apps! And for those that you do decide to keep, consider if the notifications you receive need to be fielded right now. If not, it might be worth modifying your notification settings to stop your phone from going off perpetually.
  3. Think about it. As a capable, self-directed learner, you have the ability to think critically. If pragmatic solutions like those presented above are perhaps too radical, then you might simply stop and think before engaging with your smartphone. Ask yourself why you are abruptly compelled to grab your it. Are you bored? Then maybe it’s time for a break. Are you confused? Then maybe you should go back and review the concepts introduced earlier. Reaching for one’s phone is a modern reflex.

The following mnemonic—SALE (adapted from KAJABI)—includes four additional items, unrelated to cellphone use, that you might want to consider as you try cultivating a conducive learning space.

  • Supplies: Are your basic needs covered? Maybe you need a cup of coffee; maybe you need to hydrate; maybe you need a snack. It’s important to check in with yourself. If a learner can anticipate their needs, they can prepare and react immediately, as opposed to having to step away from their environment to accommodate the need, then the learning can proceed uninterrupted.
  • Ambiance: You should be aware of what environment is most suitable for your practice of learning. For certain learners, the buzz of a crowd, a mellow music playlist or a low-volume podcast can act as a meditative backdrop and make it easier for them to concentrate. For others, maybe silence is the remedy. It is important that you understand how your surroundings inform your learning.
  • Light: Working in a room with insufficient direct or indirect sunlight could induce fatigue. Working in a room with no light at all could strain the eye and even induce headaches and migraines. If you’re in a room with windows, you should consider allowing some sunlight into your space, if only to remind your body of what time it is!
  • Ergonomics: It is not recommended that you use your knees as a table for a prolonged duration. Having a functional setup allows your body to relax and, in turn, your mind. An uncomfortable or awkward working position can lead to soreness and pain that can distract you from the work at hand.
Josh Quirion

Josh Quirion

Learning Experience Designer @KnowledgeOne |
Writer & Editor-in-Chief at yolkliterary.ca 

Josh Quirion is a former journalist and CEGEP instructor. He holds a B.Ed. from Bishop’s University and an M.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing from Concordia University. Quirion published his first book, Towners & Other Stories (Shoreline Press), in 2020.