Where is your focus?

Written by Abigail Koetting


Cell phones often pose as distractions to our every day lives, especially when we are trying to focus on completing a task and a notification goes off to distract us. Cell phone notifications are meant to get our attention, so their tone will break our focus on purpose. Most ringtones have a frequency that is most sensitive to human ears, similar to a horn, fire alert, or bicycle bell- all of which are noises that get our attention quickly because of their acoustic variability (Roer, Bell, & Buchner, 2014). Whether it’s an incoming phone call, Snapchat, or Facebook notification, simply the sound of the tone causes us to attention-switch between our mobile devices and the task at hand.


Advertised frequently are the dangers in using our mobile devices while driving. Driving requires our attention and focus, especially in more dangerous conditions such as snow or fog. However, what about cell phones in the classroom? How do ringing phones affect our focus and short-term memory? Roer, Bell and Buchner (2014) studied fifty-one college students to determine how the ringing of a cell phone affects one’s short-term memory, and if others’ cell phone ringtones affect an individual more than their own cell phone ringing. Part one deals with determining if the cell phone tone’s interference with short-term memory lessens with more occurrences. Part two then deals with determining which ringtones are more disruptive, ours or another person’s?

In this study for each trial, eight digits were showed consecutively and randomly on a computer screen to participants for them to remember. Auditory distractors (a participant’s own ringtone or one from a partner, ringing along with office noise such as talking, footsteps, or typing noises) were played over headphones while the participant was remembering the list of numbers.

Each participant completed two different blocks of trials. The first block, the training block, had eight quiet trials and eight irrelevant sound trials. During the irrelevant sound trials, a different set of office noises were played. Then the second block, the experimental block, had eight trails in each of the three auditory conditions. The first auditory condition was quiet with two irrelevant sound conditions, the second auditory condition was the partner’s ringtone, and the third auditory condition was the participant’s own ringtone.

Experimenters noted the current ringtones of the participants’ phones. Two participants were paired together to be each other’s partner. Participants were not matched with each other if they had identical ringtones, so that the acoustic differences could be accounted for when each other’s ringtones played.

Since this test was looking at short-term memory, the recall test was given right after the list of numbers was shown. A succession of eight question marks were displayed on the computer screen, and participants had to use the keyboard to enter the numbers in the same order they saw them in before; there was an option for ‘I don’t know’. When scoring, the participant only got the answer correct if they typed the same number in the same exact serial position from the sequence.

Results showed that the participant’s own ringtone was just as disruptive as the partner’s ringtone, both affecting serial recall quite drastically. Additionally, participants were more likely to become accustomed to less regular sounds such as office noise and talking rather than more regular sounds. According to Roer, Bell and Buchner (2014), more regular sounds, like a cell phone ringing, may be due to non-attentional processes. On the contrary, irregular sounds cause attentional capture. As the individual is subjected to these irregular sounds more frequently, the attentional capture weakens over time. This is why the office noise and talking could be tuned out more easily, and the cell phone ringing could not. The office noise and talking were irregular noises, causing the attentional capture, which weakens with more exposure. The cell phone ringing though, always disrupts ongoing activities because of their ability to capture individuals’ attention and grasp their focus.

In conclusion, it is evident that cell phones take our focus away from the task at hand as soon as a notification is heard. We do not become accustomed to these alerts the more we are exposed to them, as we might with typical office noise in the background each day. Our cell phones are just as attention grabbing as someone else’s, so it is important to keep your cell phone on silent when performing tasks that require high attention and focus.


Roer JP, Bell R, & Buchner A (2014) Please silence your cell phone: Your ringtone captures

other people’s attention. Noise & Health, 16(68):34-39.


Focus Roundup 2

Written by Michelle Onofrio


Photo Retrieved From: https://leadershipmanagement.com.au/losing-time-tips-for-effective-time-management/


In our hectic culture, it can seem like staying focused on one task is impossible. Here, Gretchen Rubin lessens the intimidation of maintaining a quiet focus by offering 11 practical suggestions that can be applied, little by little, to our daily lives.

Fox News – Lifestyle


What levels of inattention are normal? How much is too much? Jessica Girdwain outlines 5 reasons why we are losing our focus, suggesting what we can do for ourselves, as well as when we should seek the help of a doctor. 

Psychology Today focus2

Why is our inability to focus so prevalent, especially when we are overwhelmed with a myriad of tasks? Why are we so easily distracted by our technological devices? Offering insight from his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock answers these questions by taking a look into what regions of our brain are responsible for this phenomena.

Calm Clinic


How is our ability to concentrate affected by our anxiety? For helpful, wholesome tips to improve concentration by identifying distractions, look here.




Do we attribute our difficulty with concentration to the inundation of interruptions and opportunities we are bombarded with in our environment? While these problems are undoubtedly significant, Dr. Edward M. Hallowell argues that there are deeper causes present within our human psychology.

Focus Roundup

Written by Anna Aylward

This month we have focused on focus! This article includes some interesting resources about the science of focus and attention, the reasons behind the problems, and simple methods that we can use to improve.

The Science of Focus Control by Belle Beth Cooper


This blog post discusses the two brain systems that help you control your focus, and ways that you can rest them in order to focus better when you really need it. The description of System 1 and System 2 in the brain relevant to focus is interesting, but while it mentions meditation as one method to improve focus, the research on this shows mixed results, and needs further exploration!

Bilingual Brains Have Better Attention and Focus from Science Alert

Photo Retrieved From: https://www.almostfearless.com/picking-bilingual-baby-names/

This article review written by David Nield summarizes a study performed that studied a previously found correlation between attention and bilingualism, which showed that people switching back and forth between languages improves focus on tasks, more than just the ability to block out distractions.

Three-Day Plan to Increase Your Focus from Psychology Today

Photo Retrieved From: https://leadershipmanagement.com.au/losing-time-tips-for-effective-time-management/


This article, written by Joseph Cardillo, the author of the book Can I Have Your Attention? describes how decreased attention can affect more aspects of our life than we realize, and describes some easy strategies to combat the reasons that we lose focus that we don’t even notice.







Keeping Focus in Focus

Written by Dr. Althea Bauernschmidt

This month CALM will be focusing on selective attention. Selective attention is the skill of ignoring distracting stimuli. In other words, selective attention is your ability to focus on one task and ignore things not related to that task. Last month we talked about a related concept, multitasking. The better you are at selective attention, at focusing, then the less likely you are to multitask. You won’t switch attention back and forth between distractions and the task at hand if you have the ability to ignore the distractions in the first place.


One of the major misconceptions about selective attention is that you can’t change it – that some people are just good at focusing and others are just bad and there’s nothing you can do to change that. While it’s certainly true that some of us are blessed with better selective attention than others (full disclosure: I am unfortunately NOT one of them…), it’s not true that we can not improve our selective attention skills. Research shows that selective attention can improve with training for children, adolescents, young adults, and older adults (Karbach & Verhaegen, 2014; Karbach & Unger, 2014). However, while you can improve your selective attention, you should be aware of the limitations of training. When we talk about selective attention we’re talking about selective attention as a domain general ability – your ability to focus on reading a book, responding to an email, or having a conversation with the person in front of you. You see the biggest gains in training for selective attention in domain specific abilities, however. In other words, you can get better at reading a book in a noisy environment, like a bus or subway, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get better at focusing on responding to that email once you get into work. There is some hope for small domain general improvements, but by and large the biggest effects are seen with domain specific improvements (Karback & Verghaegen, 2014).

Cognitive psychologists call the ability to see gains in one domain after training in another, transfer. In general, across most cognitive abilities like memory and attention, it’s very difficult to get transfer across domains. This means you should be wary of any program claiming to improve your memory in general or your attention in general. While you can greatly improve at the tasks you are training on, it’s very unlikely that you will improve on those cognitive abilities across the board. For a review of the research on brain training games, see this interesting article from the Association for Psychological Science.

If you want to improve your selective attention, practice at the task you are having trouble focusing on (Diamond, & Ling, 2016). For example, if you’re a student who finds it difficult to study in a noisy environment, you should practice studying in increasingly noisy or distracting environments. Studying in a quiet space will have the short-term effect of allowing you to focus for that study session, but in the long term it won’t help you deal with noisy cafes, roommates, or rude library patrons. If you have trouble focusing on a work assignment and blocking out email messages and text notifications, practice ignoring them. Set a timer that lets you know when you can take a break from your task and check email and your other notifications. Work towards longer and longer blocks of focus time on your task. The more you practice ignoring distractions, the easier it will be.


If you haven’t already been convinced that you should improve your selective attention – whether it is your ability to focus in lecture, focus on the subway, or just focus on your email – there’s a lot of research on the negative effects of poor focus. For example, research on mind-wandering shows that people perform worse on tasks when they are distracted by mind-wandering (Unsworth & Robinson, 2016) and feel less confident in their responses compared to those who are not distracted (Sauer & Hope, 2016). These issues are compounded when the task you’re supposed to be focusing on is a complex task (Adler & Benbunan-Fich). Getting distracted while folding laundry has less disastrous consequences than losing focus while studying or driving a car.

For the rest of this month we’ll be exploring the topic of selective attention, or focus, and how it affects students and teachers in the classroom. We’ll also be discussing how cell phones and other devices hurt our ability to focus and what steps we can take to avoid these harmful distractions.



Adler, R. F., & Benunan-Fich, R. (2014). The effects of task difficulty and multitasking on performance. Interacting with Computers, 27(4), 430-439

Diamond, A., & Ling, D. (2016). Conclusions about interventions, programs, and approaches for improving executive functions that appear justified and those that, despite much hype, do not. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, 34-48.

Karbach, J., & Unger, K. (2014). Executive control training from middle childhood to adolescence. Frontiers in Psychology, 5: 390.

Karbach, J., & Verhaeghen, P. (2014). Making working memory work: A meta-analysis of executive control and working memory training in younger and older adults. Psychological Science, 25(11), 2027-2037.

Sauer, J., & Hope, L. (2016). The effects of divided attention at study and reporting procedure on regulation and monitoring for episodic recall. Acta Psychologica, 169, 143-156.

Unsworth, N., & Robinson, M. K. (2016). The influence of lapses of attention on working memory capacity. Memory & Cognition, 44, 188-196.

Cell Phones and Attention: Outcomes that affect learning both in the classroom and at home

Written by Dr. Althea Bauernschmidt and Dr. Adam Brown

Cell phones are one of the biggest contributors to multitasking. Those fantastic devices that allow you to connect with the world are excellent at distracting you from the task at hand.

From our previous posts, you’ll already know that multitasking does not allow you to complete multiple tasks simultaneously, instead when you think you are multitasking you are actually switching between tasks. This task switching comes at a cost, including making more errors and increasing reaction time. This cost is amplified if the tasks are complex or unfamiliar (Rubinstein, Meyer, & Evans, 2001).
Cell phones (and really any attention-grabbing media device like laptops or tablets) force multitasking because we’ve trained ourselves to respond to them. It’s hard to ignore an incoming text message or tweet notification. In fact, these notifications harm our attention even if we don’t respond to them (Stothart, Mitchum, Yehnert, 2015). (Next month we’ll be focusing on selective attention and how these devices harm our ability to focus on one task at a time.)

Despite the fact that cell phones lead to multitasking which ultimately impairs learning, the majority of students not only use cell phones in class, but feel that cell phone use in class is acceptable. In a survey of 400 college students over 80% said they regularly use their cellphones in class (Barry & Westfall, 2015). Furthermore, almost 75% of students thought that checking their cell phones during class was acceptable or sometimes acceptable.


One could make the argument that because students have grown up with cell phones they are better able to multitask with them. However, students who grew up in the digital age and who are used to frequent digital media perform no better at instructional multitasking than do those who are naïve  to the digital world (Wood, Zivcakova, Gentile, Archer, De Pasquale, & Nosko, 2011). Even though students are used to cell phones and social media, they are not necessarily better at multitasking with them.

Trying to pay attention and learn? Turn off your cell phone. Better yet, put it in another room.


Barry, M. J. & Westfall, A. (2015). Dial D for Distraction: The making and breaking of cell phone policies in the college classroom. College Teaching63, 62-71.

Rubinstein, J.S., Meyer, D.E., & Evans, J.E. (2001). Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 763-797.

Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., Yehnert, C., (2015). The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41(4), 893-897.

Wood E, Zivcakova, L., Gentile, P., Archer, K., De Pasquale, D., Nosko, A. (2011) Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning. Computers & Education, 58, 365-374.

“Tabless Thursdays” and the cost of Multitasking

Written by Martha Zimmerman

Take a look at these two videos to learn more about the effects of attempting to multitask and a way to try and end multitasking and become more productive.

The first from McGill University Psychology Professor Daniel Levitin. He describes the neurobiological costs of attempting to multitask, and how this leads to mental depletion; “You end up fractioning your attention into little bits and pieces, not really engaging fully in any one thing.”  Levitin also discusses ways in which we can restore our mental resources. This can be as simple as taking a break from your work and coming back to it with some sense of rejuvenation.

Big Think: Multitasking is a Myth and to Attempt It Comes at a Neurobiological Cost

The second is from The Atlantic’s health editor. The second video describes one way to aid in staying on task, and is something we can practice weekly, if not more: “Tabless Thursday.” James Hamblin, MD suggests using only one tab when using any browser to boost productivity. Using only one tab can help increase concentration on the task at hand, instead of switching between tasks, or tabs in this case.

Tabless Thursdays

Are you a great multitasker?

Written by Martha Zimmerman

Multitasking is a myth; what you are actually doing is task switching. This idea may challenge how we view ourselves, students, or our colleagues. You may believe that you have the ability to complete two or more tasks at once; however, you are actually alternating between the tasks. Moving between tasks can cause a decrease in productivity (Rubenstein, Meyer, & Evans, 2001). Some tasks will be completed, but the other tasks will perhaps be left behind (Wise, 2012). The delay that multitasking causes can affect productivity in the classroom.


Students will also attempt to multitask while in your classroom. This may look like texting, checking notifications, or using social media on laptops instead of taking notes. Students should hold themselves accountable, but may need guidance on how to avoid multitasking. You can model ways to avoid multitasking to help students. So: How do YOU stop multitasking? Try the following:

  1. Draw two horizontal parallel lines and grab someone to time you.

On the top line write, “I am a great multi-tasker”

On the second line write the numbers 1 through 20.

This should take about 20 seconds.

  1. Now try again but with multitasking. Have someone time you again.

Draw two more horizontal lines.

On the top you will again write, “I am a great multi-tasker.” You will write 1 through 20 again on the second line. This time you will write one letter on the top line and then one number on the second line, until you have finished completing both lines. Unless you are extremely gifted and talented you will more than likely see that your completion time has increased significantly. The reason that the second activity takes longer is because you are task switching.

Trying this activity for yourself can demonstrate that multitasking is not occurring, and attempting to can actually reduce productivity. To show students that they are not actually completing two tasks at once, you can even have them try this activity.

Now that you hopefully can see that multitasking is not real, let’s talk about how this can affect our students. Students will attempt to multitask in your classroom; whether it is by reading or doing homework for another class, trying to sneak in snapchats, or texting. This multitasking can have many negative effects on students. Unacapher, Thieu, and Wagner (2016) found that students who were identified as heavy media multitaskers (HMM) were found to have a diminished working memory, even if at the time of the test there was no media present. As educators our goal should be to help students build cognitive skills, and not lose what they already have. So, how can we avoid “multitasking” or task switching?

One way to best help students avoid multitasking is to model that behavior ourselves. One way you can do that is to keep a log of the times that you notice you are “multitasking.” Bringing awareness to this can help prevent it from reoccurring. Make a point to let your students know that you caught yourself attempting to switch between tasks. Hold your students accountable for doing the same thing while in your classroom, and out.

If you are willing to try logging when you are attempting to multitask you may find yourself becoming more productive; when you’re writing down your instances of multitasking include the task you wanted to switch to. Having this record may help you complete both tasks, however just at separate times

There are different ways that we can avoid multitasking. To begin helping ourselves and our students we can begin by logging and paying attention to our behavior.


Rubenstein, Meyer, & Evans. (2001). Executive control of cognitive proces in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology Human Perception & PerformanceI27(4), 763-97


Uncpher, M., Thieu, M., & Wagner, A. (2016). Media multitasking and memory: differences in working memory and long-term memory Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2(23), 483-490


Wise, M. (2012). The multitasking myth: Handling complexity in real-world operations. MPAEA Journal Of Adult Education41(2), 68-71.

Multitasking Round Up 2

Written by Soquania Henry

This week we’re continuing the conversation about multitasking. What is multitasking, why does it do more harm than good, and how can you avoid it? Check out the resources below to learn more!

  1. Does Multitasking Kill Productivity?

    Brain GearsLearn ways to be more successful while doing your daily tasks from Next Level Life.

  2. The True Cost of Multitasking

    Busy DeskWhat have you lost lately? Find yourself questioning if you are doing things the right way? Dr. Susan Weinhenk tells us the true cost of multitasking.

  3. The Myth of Multitasking

    Time FaceWhat has history taught us about multitasking? Author Christine Rosen explains to us the myths we have adapted over time.

  4. Technology in the Classroom

    usb-2705872_1280Cell phones and other devices can increase multitasking. Dr. Althea Bauernschmidt discusses how technology affects learning in the classroom in this guest post for www.learningscientists.org.


Make Your Time Count – Tips for Students

Written by Katelynn Brown


Repeatedly throughout the day, we find ourselves engaged in multitasking. We engage in multitasking when we email while eating a meal, when we text while walking, or when we try to watch TV as we are completing homework. Many times when are engaging in these behaviors, we don’t even notice that we are multitasking. In the moment it seems like an effective and simple method of completing multiple tasks as one time. What we do not acknowledge are the effects that these decisions have on our development and the work that you are trying to complete. As individuals and as students this tendency to multitask from one activity to another can have great effects on our ability to stay focused and pay attention for any amount of time. As we become more accustomed to continually switching from one task to another, we become unaccustomed to staying focused on one task. Eventually, we have difficulty focusing on one activity or task for two long because we have become so accustomed to moving between multiple activities. This tendency to lack the ability to focus can be detrimental to students. It is important that as students we are cognizant of the decisions that we are making and that we are self-aware of the best decisions to make both inside and outside of the classroom. One specific area where students to need to be conscious is when studying. When studying, students need to think about both the good and bad habits that they might have while studying and how those might affect the studying process that they experience.

Bad Study Habits 

1. Turning to distractions

Many times students turn to distractions while studying. These distractions can include using a cell phone, surfing the internet, listening to music, or watching TV while studying. Each of these distractors affects the student’s ability to concentrate on what they are attempting to learn. While studying, students should be disconnected from social media. Students should turn off notifications and limit the amount of distractions that are present. This includes turning off the TV and limiting time spent surfing the internet. These modification aid students in staying focus and engaged in studying.


2. Waiting till the last minute

We have each procrastinated at some point but procrastination does not help you in the end. Procrastination effects the amount of time that you have to devote to studying and does not help you to demonstrate your full ability in the end. When we procrastinate we limit our abilities and are not able to demonstrate all of our knowledge. Rather than procrastinating, students should organize time appropriately, create a schedule to improve time management, and set aside an appropriate amount of time to study content material.

3. Not providing yourself enough time

When studying for an exam students need to provide themselves with a sufficient amount of time to review the required information. Students need to provide themselves with sufficient time to organize their materials, provide their full attention to the material, and review. Students need to ensure that set aside an appropriate amount of time that allows them to study all of the required information but to also take a break to relax and recharge before an exam. Students should plan study time and create an effective study schedule to help stay organized when preparing for an exam.

4. Lack of organization

In the classroom, there are going to be students who have difficulty with staying organized. It is important, especially when studying, the students are organized and have all of the materials that they need. In the classroom, teachers can help by making sure that students have their assignments and calendars in working order and ensuring that students have all of the materials they need in order to effectively study. Students can make a checklist and set a schedule to help them stay organized. By ensuring that students have all of the materials that they require it will aid students when it comes time to study to stay organized.

Busy Desk

Good Study Habits: Limit Multitasking When Studying

When studying there are many distractors that can limit a student’s ability to focus. Many times these distractions can cause students to multitask rather than focusing on the single task of studying. Students need to determine different methods that they can use to help limit the urge to multitask. Here are some methods that students can use to limit the occurrence of multitasking:

1. Make a schedule to stay on track

Making a schedule can help you stay focused and on task with the studying that is being completed. By creating a schedule you can pace your progress and ensure that you have time to cover all of the material required. When creating your schedule set goals for yourself. By setting goals for yourself, you are able to better stay on track and pace the progress that you are making.




2. Silence your phone and turn off social media, messaging, and email

As they study, students should turn off their phones to limit the tendency to become distracted. Students can limit the possibility of multitasking by turning off phones and keep the distraction at a distance. Students can set goals for themselves and once the goal is achieve they can reward themselves with the use of the cell phone. Take a step back from your social media. By taking away the distraction of social media, students are better able to focus on the material that they are studying. By limiting distractions students are less likely to lose their train of thought while studying and are able to focus creating an effective study environment.

3. Set a timer for regular breaks

While studying, students should schedule regular breaks in order to stay focused. While studying students need to make sure that they schedule study breaks to help them refocus and recharge. Study breaks give students the chance to rest and process all of the information that they are studying. It is important that students schedule regular breaks into their study schedule to limit the need to multitask and to remain focused.

Time Face

4. Limit web browsing

When studying students should limit the amount of time that they spend surfing the internet. Web browsing can become a major distraction while studying, for students. Students should limit their web browsing to content specific information in order to limit the distractions that might occur.

5. Keep a healthy snack and water nearby

When studying it is important that students keep snacks and water close by. By ensuring that these essentials are close by, students are able to stay energized while reducing temptation to leave the study area. By having snacks and water close by, students are able to stay focused on the study material and to remain energized to stay on task.


Garcia, L. (2013). 10 bad study habits and how to fix them. Retrieved from https://www.babble.com/kid/10-bad-study-habits-and-how-to-fix-them/

Loveless, B. (2017). 10 habits of highly effective students. Retrieved from https://www.educationcorner.com/habits-of-successful-students.html

UoPeople Outreach. (2017, March 19). 5 bad study habits to drop and 4 ones to keep. Retrieved from https://www.uopeople.edu/blog/5-bad-study-habits-drop-4-good-ones-keep/

Willis, J. (2016, October 25). Conquering the multitasking brain drain. Retrieved from Edutopia website: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/conquering-the-multitasking-brain-drain-judy-willis


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