Creative Hacks for Increasing Student Productivity

The mind: capable of vanquishing disease and traveling the stars. An infinitely complex symphony of chemical reactions, all working together in harmony to navigate the strange, eternally fascinating world we live in. Acquired knowledge, unquestionably, is the fuel responsible for powering mankind’s ascent to the top of the food chain. In light of this, there is nothing more disheartening than watching a bright student struggle to recognize their potential.

Yet, there isn’t a single trigger of lackluster academic performance. Truth be told, it’s often the culmination of numerous variables — some controllable and others not. Even so, the fight for student engagement doesn’t have to be an uphill battle. In this piece, I will briefly examine three of the most common obstacles to student productivity, and then suggest a few tech-based solutions for tearing down these barriers to success.

Obstacle #1: Digital Distractions

As technology becomes increasingly capable of indulging our every whim, educators are forced to walk a fine line between embracing innovation and permitting off-task behavior. Not an easy predicament, as a 2013 study by the University of Nebraska illustrates, finding that the average student uses their mobile device to engage in off-task activities at least ten times a day. So then, does this mean smartphones and tablets are to be shunned completely? Obviously, the answer is a resounding no. After all, if the pace and breadth of current digital innovation is any indication, students are destined to incorporate this technology into every facet of their existence. Much like all things in life, it all boils down to balance.

While social media may cut through borders and cultural differences in a manner unprecedented in our history, that kind of revolutionary connection isn’t so great when it’s time to stay on task in the classroom. How is a teacher to compete against celebrity tweets, a crush who likes a Facebook status, or YouTube videos of cuddly creatures? For this reason, Self Control is an invaluable tool for educators; by allowing you to block all off-task content until a timer runs out, it forces students to take a break from the endless digital bombardment.

The true beauty of the app, of course, is that the block is irreversible. That means even if a student deletes the program entirely, they will still be unable to access restricted content until the timer expires.

It’s suggested that on average, the typical student can digest roughly 20 minutes of lecturingbefore their mind starts to drift. Class discussions and question sessions can break up the monotony, but even the most well-intentioned educator can fall victim to calling on a select few students in an unfair, predictable manner. Equity sticks (popsicle sticks with student names on them) are a popular way of preventing certain students from dominating a conversation. Each stick is placed into a can, with the instructor randomly drawing one out every time they ask a question.

Stick Pick brings this concept to mobile devices, both enhancing and perfecting it. It does this by allowing instructors to customize the difficulty level of each question according to student ability. When a teacher wishes to ask a question, the app randomly selects a student in a way that ensures a fair, diverse discussion. Of course, knowing that they could be called on at any moment also provides students a strong incentive to pay attention.

Obstacle #2: Student Apathy

Since time immemorial, educators have been plagued by blank stares and absent-minded expressions. Truth be told, even the most well-crafted lesson plan proves useless if students are too busy gazing out the window. That said, simply getting angry and dishing out hard discipline does little to win engagement. No, truly effective teaching requires the ability to look outside yourself and empathize, factoring in all of the unique life experiences responsible for shaping the way students approach education. Of course, if that doesn’t work, the careful cultivation of parent-teacher relationships tends to do the trick.

Decode Your Students:

The idea of “learning styles” is both praised and criticized by educators. Advocates swear diagnosing educational preferences and adjusting lessons accordingly increases student engagement and productivity. On the other hand, detractors argue a lack of empirical evidence renders the effectiveness of the approach speculative at best. No matter which side of the fence you’re on, the value in determining the types of content a class is prone to enjoying cannot be denied. Considering learning style surveys are free and readily available, there’s no excuse for failing to capitalize on this concept.

North Star Smart Star Survey:

Although similar in concept to the surveys above, the unique approach taken by the North Star Smart Star Survey app warrants a distinction. After answering a series of whimsical questions, students are presented with their own personal “learning constellations.” Laid out in an easy-to-comprehend manner, all of the areas in which a student excels are prominently displayed, whereas encouragement is provided to pursue those still in need of improvement.

Aside from providing teachers an excellent snapshot of all the unique personalities that make up a classroom, these personalized learning constellations encourage students to take an active role in their academic career — reminding them that they are smart, dynamic individuals capable of reaching great heights.

Mix it Up:

Regardless of the student survey you choose to use, the next step is to incorporate that knowledge into the creation of a blended lesson plan. Let’s say, for example, you discover a large portion of your class responds favorably to auditory learning. Armed with this information, you could stream lessons on iTunes and assign them as homework, thereby providing students a convenient opportunity to learn in a comfortable way. Stacey Roshan, a calculus teacher in Maryland, witnessed drastic improvements to test scores after taking this approach.

Then again, if you’re teaching early mathematics, you could always capitalize on Academic Music— an award winning program that connects fractions to sounds, allowing children to learn core mathematics as they sing and clap along. Point is, you don’t have to sacrifice the integrity of your curriculum to make it enjoyable.

Parent Engagement:

In some scenarios, parental figures are often the only ones with the power to cure educational apathy. Harvard University confirms this assertion, with a 2012 study of 6th and 9th grade classrooms finding direct parent involvement increased homework return rates by up to 40%. Still, reaching out to a guardian can prove challenging.

If you’re lucky, they are eager to stay up to date. If you’re not, they are overly defensive and quick to make excuses. Thankfully, the pervasiveness of mobile technology allows open lines of communication to be established with relative ease. Apps like Remind 101 and platforms likeEdmodo, for instance, are rapidly gaining popularity as non-intrusive methods of notifying parents of important tests and assignments – straight to mobile devices and all without requiring a phone number.

Obstacle #3: Disruptive Behavior

Whether you teach kindergartners or high school seniors, even the smallest instance of poor behavior can derail class time. Even worse, inane rude comments can create an environment that’s uncomfortable enough to drive some students out of school altogether.

Thankfully, technology allows educators to quickly defuse tense situations and nip disruptive behavior at the bud.

Noise pollution can become a real concern in any classroom, especially when students are engaged in group activities. While bustling conversations can be an indication of strong engagement with class material, they can also become so loud that productivity is rendered impossible. Silent Light is designed to resolve this issue entirely.

Utilizing a decimal meter and traffic light display, the app monitors classroom noise levels and projects them in a way that’s easily recognizable by all students. Green means everyone is working at acceptable volume levels, whereas red indicates unacceptably loud behavior.

This innovative app kills two birds with one stone.  Not only does Class Dojo provide parents a snapshot of student performance, it also infuses a large amount of positive reinforcement into the classroom. This is accomplished by allowing instructors to instantly provide feedback in regards to student behavior (accessible by both students and guardians).

For example, participating in a class discussion would earn a student points, whereas a rude comment would deduct them. Keep in mind, the app is designed to encourage, not punish students. That said, parents benefit from no longer having to wait for periodical progress reports to receive updates on academic performance.


When dealing with troubled or disinterested students, it’s essential to remember that they rarely go out of their way to give you a headache. To them, the world is new and filled with excitement. When technology is implemented effectively, the classroom becomes an adaptable, inviting atmosphere; one that nurtures personal growth and allows the mind to blossom into its full potential.

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