Studies have shown that distractions can hinder the success of students in online courses. New research by Richard W. Patterson, a doctoral student at Cornell University, found that software that limits distractions helped students do better and improved course completion.
Patterson’s report, Can Behavioral Tools Improve Online Student Outcomes? Experimental Evidence from a Massive Open Online Course, divided 657 students into three groups and examined how they used the Internet while participating in a nine-week MOOC on statistics.
Each group was assigned a tool that made up the limitation software Patterson used in his research. Students using the commitment tool could set limits on the amount of time they wanted to spend on websites such as Facebook or Twitter. They were also sent an email each morning to adjust the time they spent on the Internet and which blocked individual sites when too much time was spent on them.
The second group used a reminder tool that would just send them a link to the course website after a half hour was spent on other websites. The third group used a focus tool that would ask if they wanted to block distractions and for how long if they wanted uninterrupted time to study.
The commitment tool was the only tool to show significant improvement on student homework submissions, scores, and course completion. Users spent 24% more time on the course and 40% more of them completed it.
Students said spending time on distractions was much less enjoyable when using the commitment tool, because it forced them to unblock sites when they exceeded the time limits they set each morning. It also combined the reminder element and the focus elements into one tool.
“The idea behind the commitment device is that it makes impatient behavior more costly or more difficult, and that’s consistent with the way that students seem to be responding,” Patterson told The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The study also showed that distractions bother all students. Patterson expected the software would help the least-prepared students the most, but found that students who were most prepared got the most benefit from it.