8 ways to keep your students focused when using their Mac

Although Mac laptops can be a fantastic tool for students, they can also become a distraction in a classroom environment. In this post, I share 8 tried and tested ways to help your students remain focused while using their Mac laptop. If you know of other ways, share in the comments below.

Note: I work in a heavily managed environment, where users cannot install apps unless they have been pre-vetted by the IT department. 

1. Use apps in full-screen view

Macs have the ability to show apps in full-screen view, removing the ‘Dock’ and the top menu bar from view. The full screen mode allows users to focus on the one app only, with no other distractions. Full-screen view is available for most apps on Mac OS X Lion or above (at the time of writing Lion, Mountain Lion, Mavericks and Yosemite).

To show an app on full-screen view, depending on your Mac you will need to either click on the double-headed arrow icon found on the top right hand side of most app windows, or on the green button at the top left of each app window. Here is what the icons look like:

Yosemite and above

Yosemite and above

Mavericks and below

Mavericks and below

You may also choose to use the following keyboard shortcut

^ ⌘ F

Ctrl Cmd F

2. Reader on Safari

Students can read news article, or web pages, using the ‘Reader’ mode on Safari. This mode removes unnecessary clutter, such as adverts, from the page and retains only the text and useful images. ‘Reader mode’ in conjunction with Safari in full-screen view is wonderful for reading on the Web.

Here is an example of what a news article looks like with and without ‘Reader’ mode enabled.

Article with reader mode enabled

Safari normal view vs. reader view

If Safari isn’t your cup of tea, other Web browsers offer extensions, which offer similar functionality.

3. Backdrop

Backdrop helps students focus solely on the one window they are working on. Backdrop fills the screen with a blank window, adding a solid colour background behind the active window. It also hides a cluttered desktop.

Here is an example of what a Mac looks like with Backdrop.

Example of backdrop app on Mac

No backdrop vs. Backdrop

4. Use Pages for writing

This is controversial, as there are plenty of writing apps that market themselves as ‘distraction-free’ writing, some of them free. While that is true, I would still recommend to use Pages in full-screen mode. Our IT department is awesome and keeps everything up to date using JAMF. To maintain a high level of customer service, our IT department asks us to limit the number of apps we use, and there is too much overlap with those dedicated writing apps.

Here is an example of what the writing window looks like using Pages in full-screen view, with the toolbar hidden (right-click on the toolbar and select ‘Hide toolbar’). It doesn’t get much cleaner than that!

Pages in full screen mode

Pages can look ‘distraction-free’

5. Disable (some) notifications

Chances are your students’ Mac are setup to accept notifications. Notifications are messages that popup somewhere on a user’s screen to attract their attention that an event has happened. For example, by default, when a user receives an email on their Mac, a notification message shows up on the top right-hand side of the screen.

While notifications can be helpful, they can also be very distracting. Luckily it is possible to disable notifications, either entirely, or per service.

To disable only specific notifications, for example calendar alerts, you need to visit  > System Preferences > Notifications and then select which services you would like to disable notifications for. See below for an example.

Notifications settings

Notifications settings

6. Turn on ‘Do not disturb’

Do not disturb‘ switches off all notifications, at once. The easiest way to access this mode is to click on the notification centre icon (top right of your screen) and then scroll up to show the ‘Do not disturb’ option.

By default ‘Do not disturb’ resets itself to ‘Off’ the next day.

Do Not Disturb

Do Not Disturb

7. Use browser extensions

There are quite a few extensions that will help your students remain on task with as few distractions as possible. My favourites are:

  • Clea.nr for focused Youtube viewing (yes, there is such a thing :)
  • Adblock to remove unwanted adverts

Here are some more extensions, which I have not tested personally but have been recommended to me by friends.

On a side note, you may be interested in reading a blog post I wrote: Top 11 Safari extensions for teachers.

8. Limit the number of tabs in Web browser

There is no real technical solution for this. It is however good advice to give your students.

There are other strategies that you could use, for example leverage parental controls, or use software such as ‘Self-control‘, ‘Focus‘ or ‘Concentrate‘. However, I have not tried those solutions as they are not available to students in our controlled environment.

Do you have any tips you would like to share? Anything that has worked well for you? If so, write a comment below. 

Photo credit: Focus | Used it for my blog by Dimitris Kalogeropoylos under CC-BY-SA

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