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Noise and Distractions in Active Learning Classrooms

Active and collaborative learning necessarily results in a great deal of student talk, leading to noisy classrooms. Combine that with the potential visual cues from multiple screens installed on the walls of the ALCs and you have an environment that can be overwhelming to some students and easily lead to distractions and off-task behavior in others. These distractions can be minimized by making sure that student tasks are carefully planned and well structured and by holding students accountable for completing those tasks. What follows is a series of common challenges faced by instructors in the ALCs and potential solutions to those challenges.

Constant interaction at tables can result in a noisy environment

It’s important to remember that noise in and of itself is not an indicator of a classroom problem--noise often indicates student engagement. Be sure to establish a cue or signal that lets students know that you need their attention and should stop talking.

Set expectations high to keep students on task

With any active learning strategy there is a risk that students will get off task and talk about things other than solving the problem or discussing the issue at hand. To prevent this, try circulating through the room so that you can monitor student work. Make sure that the activities you have assigned are challenging and take the full amount of time you have allotted to complete them. Hold students accountable for satisfactory completion of tasks by calling on groups randomly to report or by assigning points to the activity. If students realize they are accountable for high quality work, they will be less likely to breeze through the activity and spend the balance of the time socializing. Some socializing should be expected and can lay the groundwork for effective communication among group members. While excessive socializing should be monitored, providing students with useful, relevant tasks reduces this issue to a minimum. Finally, consider limiting the number of laptops at each table; this forces students to work together and reduces one of the biggest distractions facing students in any classroom situation: surfing the internet.

Laptop computers allow students to use email, Facebook, games and other computer resources not related to class activities

As mentioned above, limiting the number of laptops per table can help. You can also tell students to close the lids of their laptops when appropriate to help ensure that their attention is on you. If students are allowed to use their laptops, consider incorporating structured tasks to keep students on track. Some instructors provide students with “gapped handouts” (lecture outlines that contain spaces for note-taking) to encourage student engagement with the content. Others incorporate frequent questioning during didactic portions of the class period.

ALCs aren't right for all students

Teachers should be alert to the possibility that some students might find this learning environment over-stimulating. A situation arose in my class where one student with a health condition could not really function in the classroom because of all the screens, lighting, and other distractions that were more than the student could handle."

- Bernadette Longo, Writing Studies, U of MN OIT Faculty Fellow