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The big problem with interruptions to classroom learning

The big problem with little interruptions to classroom learning

4 min read
  • The science of learning

Are you tired of constantly battling interruptions that disrupt your classroom flow and hinder student engagement? It’s no secret that these can be a major challenge for everyone in the classroom.

According to recent research, teachers and students experience an average of 14 interruptions on a school day. This alarming statistic emphasises the importance of addressing this issue and create an environment where students can truly thrive. So, let’s dive into the most recent research on:

  • What causes these little interruptions in the classroom
  • How these interruptions disrupt classroom learning
  • How to minimise these interruptions in your classroom

What are the most common causes for interruptions in the classroom?

A recent study revealed four major categories that contribute to little disruptions in the learning environment. Let’s explore each of these causes together…

Late students

    One of the main causes of interruptions is students arriving late to class. In fact, they account for a significant 38% of all observed external interruptions. Teachers often have to stop to open closed doors and guide late students to the current task, which takes them away from whole-class instruction.

    Visits by teachers, staff and administrators

      Another frequent interruption is when other teachers, staff and administrators visit a classroom, accounting for 17% of observed disruptions. While having an open-door culture is valuable, the observations indicate that these visits are mainly for borrowing materials, requesting make-up work or exams, or locating specific students.

      Intercom announcements

        This one may only be relevant for certain countries or schools/colleges, but intercom announcements accounted for 14% of the interruptions observed in the research. Unfortunately, many of these announcements were not relevant to the students or teachers in the observed classes. Ranging from school-wide updates on sports and social events to individual information about detention or missing permission slips, these announcements can significantly disrupt the flow of the lesson.

        Calls to classroom phones

          Classroom phone calls represented 12% of the interruptions. These calls often involved checking student attendance, informing students about detention, or requesting classroom supplies. They also found that students were frequently called out of class for meetings with college counsellors or to deliver materials to other classes.

          How do these classroom interruptions disrupt student learning?

          Now that we know the main reasons for classroom interruptions, let’s take a closer look at how these disruptions can impact your class…

          Shortened class periods

          Regular external interruptions in the classroom can have a significant impact on the length of class periods. Teachers often wait to get started for a few minutes after class has begun to wait for or welcome late students. Not only does this add up throughout the year, but this delay can also cause students to fall behind and become disengaged. Providing individualised help for latecomers further distracts other students, disrupting the flow of the class.

          Intercom announcements also contribute to the shortening of class periods. Students and teachers can spend the first few minutes of class waiting for scheduled announcements to end before engaging in focused work, resulting in lost learning time.

          Teacher and student frustration

          Frequent external interruptions can also be seen as a lack of respect for teachers’ work and students’ learning, leading to frustration for both.

          Teachers may feel disrespected when their classes are disrupted, as it interrupts their carefully planned lessons. It also takes extra effort to refocus students after these interruptions, which can be draining. Ultimately, these interruptions disregard teachers’ priorities and authority in their classrooms. Teachers see them as a lack of respect for their expertise and autonomy, which can reduce their motivation and job satisfaction.

          Students are also annoyed by irrelevant announcements, making it harder for them to stay focused in class. These small events can add up and cause significant frustration for both teachers and students, impacting the overall learning experience.

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          2 ways to minimise interruptions in your classroom

          It’s clear that while nearly impossible to avoid, classroom interruptions pose a significant challenge to optimal Teaching & Learning. But the good news is that there are effective strategies that can help you minimise them and create a more focused and efficient learning environment.

          Let’s take a look at these together…

          1. Create a culture that values instructional time

            One of the most effective strategies to minimise external interruptions in your classroom is by creating a classroom culture that values and prioritises instructional time. By setting the tone and emphasising the importance of uninterrupted learning, you can foster an environment where students understand the value of staying focused and engaged during class.

            To achieve this, it’s essential to establish clear expectations with your students regarding their behaviour and participation in class. Encourage them to be respectful of others’ time and remind them of the impact that interruptions can have on everyone’s learning experience.

            2. Implement improved communication protocols

              Improving communication protocols within the school can significantly reduce unnecessary interruptions.

              Administrators can start by prohibiting unscheduled intercom announcements. This step alone can eliminate many disruptions caused by irrelevant announcements that disrupt the flow of instruction. Schools can also limit the kind of announcements permitted over the intercom system, making sure that only essential and relevant information is shared with students.

              Furthermore, schools can explore alternative methods for making announcements and delivering information. Daily assemblies or advisory periods can be used as alternative platforms to share important updates with students. Online platforms that store grades, general announcements and event calendars can also help streamline communication and keep students informed without interrupting class time.

              Final thoughts

              It is important to keep in mind that reducing external distractions in your classroom is a shared responsibility that requires the cooperation and support of everyone in the school community. By implementing the above strategies, you can get the ball rolling on creating a more focused learning environment that prioritises student learning and achievement.

              To learn more about how you can further boost learning in the classroom, book our Science of Learning CPD workshop.


              About the editor

              Bradley Busch

              Bradley Busch

              Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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