No Image Available

Tina Doyle

Bird & Bird

Instructional Designer/IT Trainer

Read more from Tina Doyle

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Dealing with distracted learners


In the past, I have encountered learners who are constantly distracted in the classroom by their phones and emails.  Does anyone have any ideas on how to combat this issue?  Or has anyone encountered the same situation in the past and dealt with it successfully?


22 Responses

  1. here’s an option….

    1. Get yourself an old mobile phone

    2. Get yourself a bucket

    3. Fill the bucket with water, almost to the top

    4. Put it on the table at the front of the training room

    5. When you open the course, ask people to turn off their mobile phones, except during breaks. Rationalise this by pointing out that people are here to learn and that requires concentration, not distraction.  Also point out that as a mark of respect to their colleagues, the subject, their learning, the organisation paying for the training and the trainer, they should be focussing on the matter in hand; ie the learning. If necessary point out that no one is actually so critical to the business that they cannot be offline for the 2.5 hours that will elapse between breaks (if they claim that they are, it suggests that they have failed to plan and delegate in time for their attendance at the training event.)

    5a. Explain that if any phone rings, buzzes, beeps, vibrates or disturbs the event,  this will happen to the phone…..and pick up the old mobile and drop it into the bucket as a demonstration.

    6. Make sure your own phone is switched off!

    7. After each break remind delegates about switching off their phones.

    8. Welcome your delegates to the enjoyment of life offline!


    Rus Slater

  2. Issue participant guidelines at the start

    This can be a real problem with sales people as there is always a sale or call or mail to be made!

    I pre-empt this problem early, at the very start of the course when I talk about ‘workshop guidelines’.

    One of the ‘workshop guidelines’ is to be fair to others and switch off mobile phones and laptops during the course. I explain further that there will be opportunity to catch up during scheduled breaks and during lunch if needs be. I go on to ask if anyone is expecting any urgent calls or mails and needs to have their phone left on silent? When nobody replies. I simply thank them for supporting the workshop guidelines and make a start.

    In the event that someone starts to use the phone I stop whatever activity we are doing and look directly at the person in question without saying a word. In so doing all other delegates also look at the other person and peer pressure seems to bring them back to the group.

    Best wishes,

    Peter Ramsden

    Sales Trainer



  3. Or maybe…

    I think everyone is showing their age!

    I guess your learners are "youngish" people as you refer the them as Learners?

    Youngish people are not like us and will never be like us nor do they want to be like us. They live in a world of multitasking and I’m sure they could be playing a video game, texting and listening to you and thinking about whats on TV tonight.

    Celebrate their amazing capabilities and you will stop it being a battle. You could impose strict guidelines and discipline but they will then just look like they are listening rather than act like they are not listening.

    As a way forward I would introduce an activity around multi tasking and see just how much they are capable of.

    I’ll leave you with a short true story…

    I was at a conference for Further Education Teachers and the focus was *bored and unmotivated teenagers*

    The speaker said "hold up your hands all those who can use 80% of your mobile phone functions". response – ZERO

    He then asked "if you were all 16 and I asked the same question what would be the response"?

    The lesson – Bring out the best in them and don’t look for the worst!

  4. Where’s the ‘like’ button?

    Steve – spot on

    In my experience it’s not just generational.  My local biz school now supplies iPads to MBA and Exec students for use in class.  iPads and tablets are also used by many of my colleagues for note taking during meetings etc.  My philosophy is, if it’s not distracting others then no problem – if a phone call or email is important enough to distract the learner then they usually excuse themselves and deal with it.  I’m not daft enough to think what I’m presenting/teaching/facilitating is more important than anything else that may be going on in the business.

  5. Distrcted learners (youngish or oldish)

    Ha ha Rus – I love it!  I should have implemented this – it would have certainly stimulated the visual learners in the group!  The downside to this – the kinaesthetic learners would have wanted to have a go! 🙂

    Peter, I think your idea is the best and I have already started to create a "training room rules" which will be delivered at the start of the sessions.

    Thank you to all of you for your suggestions, I shall certainly be taking them into consideration.



  6. genius (not my post – Rus’s idea).

    Loving Rus’s reponse – brilliant idea, I’d love to see that in action.  I don’t deliver training yet but am doing my CIPD so might pinch that when I do my assessment.

    Steve’s point about the younger generation has got me thinking that if this generation are always multi tasking what is the capacity to learn (who knows!), and considering how much information is easily accessible is there still a need to learn as much?   I think the answer to this is yes however do others agree, and do the younger generation agree?

    — Blake Henegan Optimus Sourcing

  7. Missunderstood

    I think the younger generation are very missunderstood.

    If I need help with my Phone, TV remote, Sat Nav, Video camera I would get much more sense out of a 16yr old hoody wearing grunter than I would out of an articulate 40 something who has good manners.

    The best way to approach any training with them is to let them show you what "they" are good at and enable them to build on it rather than impose our outdated archaic views they have no interest in. Their future will be a million miles from anything we have ever known and maybe multi tasking and grunting will be well respected qualities in 2040

    Reminds me of a story in a country I lived in (that shall remain nameless…)

    Why teach a horse to sing…it wastes your time and annoys the horse.

  8. generation?

    I’m not sure that it is a generational thing; certainly the delegates I deal with daily are actually probably closer to an average age of 35 than 17 (yes, I know that I’m now 50 and I’m old and grey and can remember when Fax was really cutting edge).

    My problem with the phone/text/email in the training room is just that when three delegates are working together in a syndicate exercise and two are taking phone calls then only one is actually doing anything.  Then when it is time for feedback/sharing etc some poor s*d is left with all the work because the other two haven’t been playing ball for the last 10 minutes.

    Role play is the absolute cracker of course…..there is nothing like a delegate in the midst of handling a very complex disciplinary interview and their mobile starts playing "Waltzing Matilda"… makes a real life learning point , (ironically about turning off the mobile phone!) but it also damages the bulk of the learning experience.

    Rus Slater

  9. Let them set the rules

    I agree that this is not something which only effects programme where the primary audience is young people, I have seen this behaviour happening with the complete range of ages.  The issue is not so much whether it is distracting the person on the phone as whether it is distracting the others on the course.  Personally, I don’t have any problem with people wanting to take notes on a tablet or lap top during a session.  I do however, have an issue with people taking mobile phone calls or answering emails, texts and reading their friends facebook updates. 

    One trick I’ve used in the past is to answer the phone if it goes off – I do warn people I’m going to do this and believe me you only have to do it once.

    Rather than set workshop rules, always best to get the group to set their own rules and specifically prompt them to include mobiles and emails.  In one organisation I worked in, the use of a mobile – especially if it rang – resulted in that person standing in front of the group and singing a song at the next break – their punsihment not mine.  One ‘game’ I play at the start of longer sessions is Sabotage.  As an introduction to the rule setting ask syndicates to identify all the things they can do to ruin the training session for themselves and others.  Once they’ve done that, then ask them to draw up their rules.

    Two other tips:

    1-  if your learners attend a number of training sessions run by others, make sure that all trainers take a similar approach or you run the risk of seeming to be out of step and somehow ‘stricter’ – consistency is good.

    2 – there’s no such thing as multi-tasking!  What there is is rapid task switching, where the person moves between tasks quickly.  This inevitably reduces their concentration and focus on one task – even if only for a moment.  Look at the experience so-called laptop universites in the US ( for some of the arguments for and against encouraging fragmented concentration in a learning environment.


  10. Can you imagine if the trainer used their mobiles to take busine

    I understand the comments re technological aptitude, however I don’t agree re multi-tasking. I have 3 kids of school age & none of them are allowed to use mobiles in their lessons & there are serious penalties for breaking that rule.

    Now I know we are not the same as the teachers in school (& nor do I want to be) however my kids’ teachers know that "youth" is no excuse & even one person texting, surfing or sending emails does represent a distraction for the whole class.

    For me, using a mobile is as clear a sign of someone not participating as if you were to hear the sound of gentle snoring from a delegate.

    So I think it is fair to say that my mobile is off so I can focus on the job in hand and I would appreciate the same in return.

  11. Ah but…

    I still go back to the premise that in 2040 and beyond there will be nobody with the attention span of more than 5 seconds* as they will be bombarded from all drections including implans in the brain so why are we still teaching young people to sit down, be quiet and do 1 thing at a time when it is not going to help them in "their" world?

    * I have 150 TV chanels and manage to watch most of them in the evening and we are still only 2012 and I am an oldie!

  12. Great topic

    This is a great topic and I love all the inputs. What I like to do is have the members of the class make up the ROE (rules of engagement) for the class. I set up a flip chart and I write them all down, the cell phone always comes up as one of the first, along with respecting fellow attendees ect.. I then post these on the wall if possible or just leave them on the flip chart for everyone to see. I also like to make some fun “stipulations” if a rule is broken, these have been everything from come to the front and tell us a story about your childhood (5 min) or bring candy back after lunch. I understand the world of social media but there has to be some rules when you are in different environments, I love the bucket of water idea..I may try that one.

  13. Great debate

    Wow – great responses

    The generality that most responses seem to be predicated on is that the ‘training’ is more important than anything else that may be happening in the life of the learner (and this should take precedence as people can’t truly multi-task).  This may not be true!  Clearly as educators we we want people to be focused on the task at hand but the reality of modern business life if that there are interruptions, whether we are working at our desks, commuting on the train, in a meeting or in a training session (air travel seems to offer the only respite).  The interruption maybe a mobile phone, urgenmt email from a customer or counterparty or someone barging in and demanding our attention (does this ever happen to people in your training sessions?)

    I’ve got to agree with other posters who talk of the learners setting their own groundrules about the use of phones, answering emails, taking breaks etc.  I don’t believe that a trainer (particularly a contractor who may not understand the culture and norms of a business) imposing rules based upon their values and (perhaps) self importance.


  14. Control

    Isn’t it all about "control"?

    The more control the Trainer has the less creative the Learners can be…however, you then run the danger of a chaotic session but why is chaos so bad?

    As a previous poster suggested "chaos" is part of everyday life so why shouldn’t it exist in a Training room?

    I would also argue that if the group of people in front of me wanted to do a million things other than listen to me then thats exactly what I should be exploring rather than telling them to behave in a way that doesn’t suit their personalities or their reality of the world.

    My advice would be to "let go" and see what happens…

    However ALL of the above comments are assumptions as none of us know who they are or what you are supposed to be teaching them.


  15. Give them ‘permission’?

    Really interesting debate.

    My technique is to ask to include it in the group contract and say something like "Could we please put our mobiles on to silent, but if you feel you need to be contactable in an emergency – perhaps you have a mum in hospital or your child went to school a bit under the weather this morning – please do leave it on vibrate in your pocket and then, if you get that sort of call feel free to step outside to take it". That highlights, I feel, that only for genuine emergencies should people be taking calls during training sessions.


  16. Can’t beat them – join them

    Last week I was delivering a 2 hour workshop, asked everyone to have their phones away as per usual, however 1 manager decided to use it continously.

    During a discussion we were having, this manager was making a very valid point, while he was doing this and looking at me, I reached into my bag, picked up my phone and started playing with it. After a few seconds I put it back in my bag and we carried on. At the end of the workshop he approached me and appologised for using his phone stating that when I used it as he was speaking he thought it was very rude and had a ‘light bulb moment’ realising that the same was true when he was using it while others were speaking.

    (I should point out the others in the workshop picked up on what I was doing and didnt think I was being rude)

    Regards Scott

  17. Can’t beat them – join them

    Scott – I found your experience very interesting.  I had the same issue (in a previous employment) with one manager in particular who was my line line manager!  Unfortunately, I didn’t have the confidence then to deal with it and it is something I always wished I had dealt with.  I suppose this is really the reason why I asked the question about distracted learners – I wanted to know how other learning professionals have dealt with this issue in the past.

    Glad everyone is enjoying this topic!



  18. practicalities

    If time allows I ask delegates to set their own groundrules, where a workshop is very short (or proscribed by the client) then there isn’t time to get delegates to set their own groundrules, so I’ll suggest them and ask them to agree.

    Yes, there are reasons why a person may need to have their phone on due to a potentially important call….but it is only once they answer the call, that they actually know that it is the important one.  Most of the calls that most people get on a one day course are routine and the world will not stop turning if it waits a couple of hours.  If someone is expecting an emergency call then of course they can keep their phone on, silenced and take it immediately. I’m not an ogre.

    As an external contractor I may have a pretty good handle on the client’s culture……I also have a contractual obligation to the paying client to help the delegates to achieve certain learning objectives in the time allocated and sadly presiding over happy chaos has never yet been set as one of my goals!

    There are downsides of being uncontactable……I myself have discovered that I have missed the calls saying that my Mother in Law has had a stroke and been rushed to hospital, that my Mother has slipped into a coma and finally that my Mother had passed away.  In the last case I picked up the voicemail message at lunch time…….I just had to paste on a smile and get on with the afternoon’s workshop activities.

    Life, sadly isn’t always fair


    My delegates are adults and generally if they are contracted with to concentrate on the matter in hand, to whit, the training course, then they are usually very happy to do so.



  19. Great opinion sharing

    I agree with a number of the views shared here. Setting ground rules from the start is vital, regardless of who makes them – so long as everyone buys in.

    I encourage anyone who is expecting an urgent call or needs to deal with something back at the office to let me know, otherwise it can wait until the break. I find this works well.

    In the past I’ve threatened singing if your phone goes off; I don’t use telling a joke/story anymore after it backfired on me, with one guy telling what ended up being quite an R-rated joke…

    I’m a bit more tolerant of people checking their phone and sending the odd text (after all I text a lot myself) – provided that they can indeed multi-task. It’s when they start saying, "sorry what are we doing now?" that I give a gentle reminder that unless their texting is urgent then it needs to stop.

    I often find the worst culprits are senior colleagues who want to carry on working; and I’ve asked more than one whether they would prefer to go back to work and attend the course another time because it was so obvious to others on the course that they weren’t engaged.

    Sorry gotta go – my phone is ringing… L8r


  20. Do unto others….

    Well done Scott, I think you did the right thing. 

    I know not everyone here agrees, but for me it is less about the culture of the organisation and more about being treated with respect & as a fellow professional. Unless we value what we are trying to achieve, then of course there is a worry that other people’s calls are more important than what we are trying to do in the training room. But the reality is that it is a very rare set of circumstances that means the call needs taking immediately.

    Most (but not all) occasions when the mobile impinges on the training room it is because someone has either not delegated correctly or does not worry about their impact on others. I think it speaks volumes that most delegates voice it as an issue when talking ground rules and they are as much a consideration as the person who wants to be contactable 24/7.

    In true emergencies, there is always a way of getting in contact with someone in training. The question is, would the person calling have done it if they needed to speak to a third party? if the answer is no, then what about everyone else in the room?


  21. Do they want to be there?

    Is it worth considering the fact that the delegates may not actually want to be in that classroom at that time. Another time and place they may well find the content useful. The growth of mobile learning and the training management software that facilitates this learning means that individuals can choose when they learn – hopefully then they won’t be distracted by mobile phones…

    Just a thought!



  22. Be strong and don’t stand for it!

    How would a group or individual feel if if were you that was the distracted?

    Would people get annoyed if you took calls or texts? I rather think they would.

    I do two things that might help. Firstly, at the start, I make a show of turning my phone off, and letting all know that’s what I expect in return. This can sometimes prompt a chorus of why this is an impossibility..hmm that is negotiable, and you set the rules.

    Secondly, I assert what I consider to be my right to politely and firmly ask anyone that takes a call to not do so and to focus on what we are all here for…if you don’t it sets the wrong tone…no pun intended.

    Othertimes I pause procedings whilst the call is answered – this tends to hasten things in a charged silence.

    On other occaissions on longer events I have used a system of fines – £1 for a call taken, £3 for leaving the room and so on, and we award the pool to the lowest value contributor…this requires a treasurer.

    In essence, be strong, and stop people from behaving badly.

    Happy to discuss offline…

    All the best,

    Andrew Gibbons

No Image Available
Tina Doyle

Instructional Designer/IT Trainer

Read more from Tina Doyle

Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.

Thank you!