The Science of Attention: How To Capture And Hold The Attention of Easily Distracted Students

capturing attention

How long can you reasonably expect your students to pay attention during your lessons? Some psychologists claim the typical student’s attention span is about 10 to 15 minutes long, yet most university classes last 50 to 90 minutes. Students’ attention levels vary widely based on factors like motivation, emotion, enjoyment, and time of day. From incorporating demonstrations or visuals into our lessons to requiring student participation, we do our best to keep students interested and alert. But could we be doing better?

Let’s take a closer look at what the science actually says.

The Average Attention Span

Despite the popular belief that students have “short” attention spans ranging from 10 to 15 minutes, there is considerable evidence to suggest otherwise.

In a 2007 literature review, psychologists Karen Wilson and James H. Korn concluded there is little evidence to support this belief. The evidence they did find was shallow and imprecise. For example, after finding that student note-taking generally declines over the duration of a lecture, the researchers of one study expressed support for the attention span theory. But, as Wilson and Korn point out, they found no direct evidence of a consistent 10 to 15 minute attention span.

In another study of student attention, trained observers watched students during a lecture and recorded perceived breaks in attention. They noted attention lapses during the initial minutes of “settling-in,” again at 10-18 minutes into lecture, and then as frequently as every 3-4 minutes toward the end of class.

Wilson and Korn are quick to remind us that observers may not be able to accurately measure students’ attention spans, and that while there may be a pattern of decline in student attention during a lecture, the exact length of the average attention span wasn’t determined.

Attention and Active Learning

In 2010, researchers revisited the issue by asking students in three introductory chemistry courses to report lapses in attention by using a “clicker.” Each course was taught by a different professor using a different teaching method (lecturing, demonstrating, or asking a question). The researchers measured the average length of the students’ reported attention lapses, as well as the relationship between attention lapses and various pedagogical methods used by each professor. The students were asked to report attention lapses by pressing a button on their clickers after they became aware that they had experienced a period of inattention.

The students clicked one button to indicate an attention lapse lasting 1 minute or less, another button to indicate a lapse of 2 to 3 minutes, and a third button to indicate a lapse of 5 minutes or more. The clicker-responses were sent to a computer, and this information was mapped onto a timeline of the different teaching methods used by each professor.

This allowed the researchers to tell whether reported lapses in attention became more or less frequent (or stayed the same) when a professor switched from one method to another.

The researchers found three interesting things. First, that the most frequently reported length of attention lapse was 1 minute or less, suggesting that very short breaks in attention are more common than longer breaks. Second, that the lapses occurred more frequently than the prevailing theory suggests. If the 10-15 minute theory were true, the researchers would have seen a pattern of reported lapses every 10 minutes or so, but this didn’t happen.

Instead, across all three courses, they observed a pattern in which the first “spike” in reported attention lapses occurred just 30 seconds into a lecture segment, reflecting the “settling-in” period; the next spike occurred at 4.5 to 5.5 minutes into the lecture; the next at 7 to 9 minutes; and the next at 9 to 10 minutes in.

This waxing-and-waning pattern continued throughout the lecture, with attention lapses occurring more frequently as the lecture progressed. By the end of the lecture, lapses occurred about every two minutes.

Thirdly, the researchers found a relationship between attention and active learning, or “student-centered” pedagogies. The two most commonly employed active learning methods were demonstrations and questions. There were fewer attention lapses reported during demonstrations and questions than during lecture segments. There were also fewer reported lapses in attention during lecture segments in the period immediately following either a demonstration or a question, when compared to lecture segments that preceded the active learning methods.

This last finding suggests that active learning methods may have “dual benefits”: engaging student attention during a segment and refreshing attention immediately after a segment.

The Truth About Technology

We’re all familiar with the argument–increased exposure to technology is rewiring students’ brains, making it tougher to reach and teach them. A Pew Internet survey of nearly 2,500 teachers finds that 87% believe new technologies are creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans” and 64% say today’s digital technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.” But is it really this black or white? Can’t technology improve attention in some cases?

David Levy, a professor in the Information School at University of Washington, sees a problem with many discussions about what technology is doing to our minds.

“So many of those debates fail to even acknowledge or realize that we can educate ourselves, even in the digital era, to be more attentive,” he says. “What’s crucial is education.”
For example, in his classes, students meditate before lessons begin. Outside of class, he has them spend half an hour each day observing and logging their e-mail behavior.

Even Kristen Purcell, the associate director for research at Pew, acknowledged that the Pew findings could be viewed from another perspective: that the education system must adjust to better accommodate the way students learn.

“What we’re labeling as ‘distraction,’ some see as a failure of adults to see how these kids process information,” she said. “They’re not saying distraction is good but that the label of ‘distraction’ is a judgment of this generation.”

What’s more, the surveys also found that many teachers said technology could be a useful educational tool. In the Pew survey, which was done in conjunction with the College Board and the National Writing Project, roughly 75 percent of 2,462 teachers surveyed said that the Internet and search engines had a “mostly positive” impact on student research skills. And they said such tools had made students more self-sufficient researchers.

Students themselves agree. Med students at the University of California Irvine reported scoring 23 percent higher on national exams after being equipped with iPads in class. And, according to Pearson, more than six in ten college students and high school seniors agree that tablets help students to study more efficiently (66% and 64%) and help them perform better in class (64% and 63%).

How Can We Use These Findings?

We can make great leaps and bounds in our teaching simply by acknowledging findings like these. We can see that it’s effective to “break-up” lectures with periods of active learning, not only because of increased attention during such activities, but also because of the indirect boost in attention that can occur during lecture periods immediately following such activities.

We also see that we could benefit from reflecting on our expectations regarding student attention: as we deliver our lessons, we should expect brief lapses in attention, and plan accordingly.

In addition to incorporating active learning into our lessons, we can use technology to engage students and keep material personally relevant.

Tricks for Capturing Your Students’ Attention

1. Change the level and tone of your voice.

Often just changing the level and tone of your voice – perhaps by lowering or raising it slightly – will bring students back from a zone-out session.

2. Use props or visuals.

Presenting a striking picture related to your topic is sure to get all eyes on you. Don’t comment on it; allow students to start the dialogue. Here are a few resources on how to use animations and storyboards as a teaching tool.

3. Make a startling statement or give a quote.

Writing a surprising statement or quote related to the content on the board has a similar effect. In a lesson about linebreaks in poetry, write, “I am dying” on the board, wait a minute, and continue on the next line with “for a bowl of ice cream.” See what kind of reaction you get.

4. Write a challenging question on the board.

Write a basic comprehension question related to the reading on the board. Students have to answer it on slips of paper and turn them in. This gets students focused right away on course material. The question can then lead to discussion after the quiz.

5. Choose relevant examples.

Know your students and relate content to them. You don’t have to reach every student on an individual level; just try to use examples and scenarios most of them might encounter on a regular basis. Read more about the importance of relevance in this article.

6. Teach at the right level of difficulty.

Material that is too hard or too difficult can result in student inattention. Check for understanding or boredom at the beginning, then tailor the material to the class. Information overload can shut off a student’s desire to learn.

7. Involve students in lectures.

Don’t just lecture on the anatomy of the brain with charts and diagrams; this will surely put everyone to sleep. During the lecture, stop to ask students if they can figure out the location of a brain section based on its Latin roots.

8. Use humor.

Nothing wins attention like a good joke. Students appreciate teachers who know how to incorporate humor into their material. Joke about yourself, the weather, the irony of a concept…anything can work.

9. Establish the routine, task, and time limit.

If students are to work in groups, for example, they should know which group they belong in, what they will be doing, and for how long. This prevents attention from lapsing due to unclear goals.

10. Plan carefully and fully; make the plan apparent to students.

Students will lose focus if the objectives and plan for the lesson are not clear to them. Writing what the class will be doing on the board helps keep focus.

11. Divide target skills into manageable subskills.

If students are going to be participating in a class debate, telling them to “Debate the issue” may result in a lot of students wandering around confused. Outline what is involved in a debate on the board and break it down: today decide the issue and our sides; tomorrow establish the roles within our teams, the next day research, and so forth.

12. Establish clear roles.

In doing the debate, to continue the example, everyone within the group should have a task: either preparing some research for the debate, outlining the debate, preparing a counterargument, etc. If everyone’s role is clear, and everyone has a job to do, this results in less web-surfing and updating Facebook profiles during class.

13. Introduce change and surprise.

Human beings quickly become habituated to the status quo. When something in our environment shifts, however, we start paying attention again. A good rule of thumb is to switch things up every 15 minutes or so – tell a joke or a story, show a picture, address your topic in a different way.

14. Stress relevance and concreteness.

The human mind can’t handle too much abstraction. Bring your ideas down to earth by explaining how they connect to your listeners’ lives, and by embedding sensory details – what things look, sound, feel and taste like – into your account.

15. Tell stories.

Researchers who study human cognition say that stories are “psychologically privileged” — that is, our minds treat them differently than other kinds of information. We understand them better, remember them more accurately, and we find them more engaging to listen to in the first place. “When planning your presentation, think about how to capture your ideas in a narrative,” educator and psychologist Annie Murphy suggests.”

And remember, good stories usually have strong characters, a conflict — the main character can’t get what he wants — and complications on the way to overcoming that conflict.” Read more storytelling tips for educators here.

About

Saga has taught and tutored writing at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. Her educational interests include psychology, creativity, and system reform. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, Oregon, USA.

You can reach her on Google+, @sagamilena or saga.briggs @ oc.edu.au.

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