Bryan Dinner, the founder of ed-tech app Clarifi, and Melissa Dvorsky, a licensed clinical psychologist, discuss with Aisha Schnellmann how digital distractions can affect students with attention difficulties, and why technology could be part of the solution.
Aisha Schnellmann: How does distracted learning affect children’s academic success?
Melissa Dvorsky: Distractibility can affect learning in a variety of ways, which can, in turn, impact academic success. Distracted students can have large gaps in their understanding and learning. For adolescents with larger workloads, being distracted can impact their homework completion rate and affect executive functioning skills that are important to learning, such as time management and organization. Understandably, distracted learning impacts students with attention difficulties such as ADHD to an even greater extent. These children need to put in significantly more effort to stay engaged and motivated, to exercise their executive functioning skills, and to complete their schoolwork.
For most students with attention difficulties, remote learning online during the pandemic has been especially challenging. Many have found the change in routine, structure, and schedule extremely distracting. In particular, they have struggled with the task of planning and organizing their time, consequently affecting their homework completion rate.
Bryan Dinner: I know from my personal experience that to overcome distractions and thrive, students with ADHD need reliable habits and specific routines that structure their learning time. However, the shift to remote online learning during the pandemic completely upended this predictability. Many found it difficult to overcome the digital distractions they faced, as well as the unpredictable learning environment that lacked the same accountability. This could frustrate their ability and motivation to learn.
“Many found it difficult to overcome the digital distractions they faced, as well as the unpredictable learning environment that lacked the same accountability.”
I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was fourteen years old. When I was in secondary school, my parents found me in an empty bathtub, fully clothed, studying my mathematics textbook in an attempt to get away from my electronics and digital distractions. With the help of ADHD coaches, I eventually built habits that I relied on throughout my undergraduate education and the first part of my graduate school experience. Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly I was required to sit in front of a computer all the time. This significantly affected my ability to focus, and I had to figure out how to maintain my habits in an environment full of digital distractions. For adolescents with attention difficulties, the inability to remove digital distractions can be overwhelming. Having a strong support system, with parents who are really involved in keeping them on track, can make the difference. But the work can pile up and the wheels come off if they don’t receive the support they need to navigate the new learning environment.
AS: How can schools and teachers help adolescents with attention difficulties overcome these struggles in the classroom?
MD: In the classroom, there are a lot of subtle but impactful things that teachers can do to keep students focused throughout the day. They might walk around the classroom and tap on a paper or shoulder when they notice that a student might not be on task, for example. Students are also more motivated to stay focused and on task in the classroom when they are surrounded by peers who are completing the same schoolwork. When they learn remotely online, they miss out on monitoring, positive reinforcement, and immediate feedback from their teachers. They must find ways to motivate themselves. Unfortunately, most adolescents have not yet developed the internal drive or the executive functioning skills needed to self-initiate their learning and overcome distractions on their own, even if they really want to do well. For students with attention difficulties, this is further amplified.
“Most adolescents have not yet developed the internal drive or the executive functioning skills needed to self-initiate their learning and overcome distractions on their own, even if they really want to do well.”
AS: In the digital remote learning environment, do you think students are sufficiently equipped with effective tools and strategies to mitigate attention difficulties independently?
MD: There are some great tools out there with different functionalities, such as distributing assignments, hyperlinking interactive activities, and organizing grades.
But all these tools cannot be accessed on a single platform.
BD: There also aren’t many productivity-enhancing tools tailored to students that are integrated within their school’s Learning Management System (LMS) and also include an effective communication channel allowing parents, teachers, and students to connect.
MD: That’s right. Instead, students often need to log into different apps to complete assignments, view their goals, and see what homework they’ve been assigned. This requires them to draw on a lot of their working memory and rely heavily on their executive functioning skills to make task lists, think about how long it will take to complete the tasks, and hold themselves accountable.
BD: Significantly, many of these tools still fail to address a key challenge students face today as they learn on the same electronic devices that they play on: namely, they need separate “work” and “play” digital environments to avoid distractions and focus on studying. In order to address these gaps, we created our application, Clarifi. It provides a lockdown browser that enables students to complete their work online without any digital distractions – a productive work-only virtual space in a computer desktop application.
“The transition from extrinsic rewards to intrinsic motivation is difficult to measure. I think about motivation as a continuum that ranges from extrinsic to intrinsic.”
AS: Clarifi utilizes gamification to motivate students to stay on task and complete their assignments without digital distractions. How does gamification help students stay engaged and motivated to complete their work?
BD: Our goal is to support students in completing 25 minutes of uninterrupted work at least twice a week, and thereby to affect behavioral change. When they complete their assignments, they earn gems that they can use to redeem rewards, such as an opportunity to pick the movie of the week at home. If they leave a session early, they lose the gems they have captured – students’ psychology of loss aversion helps keep them focused.
For most students, this gamification element helps them stay engaged and motivated as they are personally invested in the game and the rewards they can earn. An ongoing research project under Dr. Dvorsky’s supervision at AIM Academy, a Pennsylvania-based Research-to-Practice School and Haskins Global Literacy Hub partner, found that Clarifi was more effective for students who volunteered to use the desktop app than for students who were required to use it. In initial results, approximately 75% of parents with volunteering students reported their children completed their homework more independently than before using the app. To put it simply, you cannot force someone to focus; it needs to be their decision.
MD: Students with ADHD in particular need to receive feedback in the moment or immediately after an event has occurred; research has shown that they are less likely to respond to delayed gratification. The gamification element therefore provides them with the instant feedback they need to stay focused and motivated, whether it’s via a pop-up notification congratulating the student for completing the task or by earning a gem.
AS: Can the extrinsic motivation introduced by gamification elements eventually inspire students to be intrinsically motivated to learn?
MD: In this context, external rewards and positive reinforcement are necessary to motivate students to remain engaged and focused. But it can take months or years for students to develop intrinsic motivation and erase their reliance on external reinforcement. That’s why the transition from extrinsic rewards to intrinsic motivation is difficult to measure. I think about motivation as a continuum that ranges from extrinsic to intrinsic. In the short term, however, external rewards can give students a tangible taste of success and empower them to continue overcoming distractions to achieve results.
Bryan Dinner is the founder and CEO of Clarifi, a desktop application that works as a homework productivity tool for teens with ADHD and weak executive functioning skills. Bryan, who is diagnosed with ADHD, started Clarifi to digitize the evidence-based intervention techniques that he was taught as an adolescent, but which are not available to most students. Bryan is a Jacobs Foundation Social Entrepreneur Fellow, and he will be graduating with a JD/MBA from the University of Pennsylvania in May. Prior to founding Clarifi, Bryan worked as a Consultant for Accenture’s top ranked Data Strategy group and as a Summer Associate for Kirkland & Ellis.
Melissa Dvorsky is an Assistant Professor and the Director of the ADHD & Learning Differences Program at Children’s National Hospital and the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
She serves as the research advisor for Clarifi, supporting efforts to bring research to practice. She has been recognized for her leadership using technology to support adolescents with ADHD and executive functioning challenges, including being selected as the Young Research Scientist of the Year for 2021 by CHADD, the leading national advocacy group for people with ADHD.