Can software tools help students avoid distraction during digital learning?

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Distributing responses to questions related to the extent of digital distractions during learning. debt: Education and Information Technologies (2023) DOI: 10.1007/s10639-023-12198-2

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Distributing responses to questions related to the extent of digital distractions during learning. debt: Education and Information Technologies (2023) DOI: 10.1007/s10639-023-12198-2

Digital learners are easily distracted. This is because the devices used offer many opportunities to pass the time in other ways. Meanwhile, a growing number of software applications are designed to help you focus. But how are these self-regulation tools used and how helpful are they perceived?

A A new study By DIPF | The Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education surveyed 273 higher education students. The findings indicate that these tools are not a universal solution; They require an understanding of the program’s capabilities by individual systems and users. The work has been published in the Journal Education and Information Technologies.

Do I keep watching a video tutorial or like a music clip? Do I follow the online lecture to the end or play another round of my favorite game? Any digital learner may be familiar with such tests. This has also been confirmed by a new study. „None of the study participants were ever distracted from digital learning. 64% said it happened to them often or even very often,” explains Daniel Biederman, lead author and researcher at DIPF.

Self-regulation tools help students stay on track. They are widely available and are now pre-installed on most devices. For example, they can block websites or show how much time they spend on apps that aren’t used for learning.

But how well-known are these tools and their functions, and how are they used? Results will vary by feature and user group. However, it is worth noting that while 175 participants said that digital distractions caused them serious problems, 49% of them did not use any self-control strategies during the survey. About 7% of these 175 respondents were completely unaware of the tools.

The effectiveness of these programs was perceived in mixed ways; While none of their functions were considered completely unhelpful, the usage time visualization was rated as least useful. Features to limit or fix distractions from websites are much appreciated. Daniel Biedermann adds, „Whether such a tool is rated as helpful depends on how often users distract themselves. People with higher levels of distraction usually need more controls.”

Background and implications

The study revealed several reasons why respondents do not use the tools frequently or find them inconsistently helpful. A key point: Platforms like YouTube serve educational and recreational purposes, making total censorship impractical.

Study participants rated self-control programs as difficult to deal with in some cases – for example, they often need to be specifically switched on and off. Additionally, users are not always motivated to use tools or only use them during stressful selection phases. This makes it difficult to fundamentally change inhibiting behavior.

The findings suggest several implications. Improved functionality of self-regulatory tools, such as automatic activation, may help. On sites like YouTube, it makes sense to flag learning and leisure content so that these sites don’t have to be completely blocked. Improved information and training on how to use the tools would be helpful, and more research on how people can be motivated to use them.

Biedermann says, „Overall, it is clear that the use of programs must be tailored to the individual user and their situation. As a first step, it makes sense to focus on the variety of existing tools and their organization. Options.”


A team from several DIPF departments was involved in the study. Among other things, researchers deal with issues of digital education and personal learning support. For the online survey study, the research team used data from a total of 273 higher education students—mostly from Germany, but also from some other countries.

In questionnaires respondents provided information about their distractive behavior, their media consumption, and their use of self-control tools. The questionnaires included quantitative research tools such as classifications on measurements, but also free text responses. Researchers calculated mean values ​​and correlations for statistical data.

The scientists point out that the study has limitations. For example, participants mainly spoke German or English, meaning that culturally different usage behaviors could not be accurately explored. In addition, variables such as helpfulness can be studied in longer developmental contexts and with more precise standards. However, this will require further, long-term research.

More information:
Daniel Biedermann et al, The Use of Digital Self-Regulation Tools in Higher Education—An Exploratory Review, Education and Information Technologies (2023) DOI: 10.1007/s10639-023-12198-2

Provided by DIPF | Leibniz Institute for Educational Research and Educational Information

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