The Science of Attention: How To Capture And Hold The Attention of Easily Distracted Students
Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Twitter @sagamilena or read more of her writing here.
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. It’s natural for student attention levels to vary according to motivation, mood, perceived relevance of the material, and other factors. But are there specific tactics we could be employing in our instruction to keep students interested and alert for longer periods of time?
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 the lecture, and then as often 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.”
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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,” the researchers reported. “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,” they conclude, “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 that 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, doesn’t buy the argument that technology is draining our brains.
“So many of those debates fail to even acknowledge or realise 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 behaviour.
Even Kristen Purcell, the associate director for research at Pew, suggested the Pew findings could be interpreted in a different way: 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 says. “They’re not saying distraction is good but that the label of ‘distraction’ is a judgment of this generation.”
What’s more, the survey revealed that many teachers consider technology to be a positively impactful educational tool. Nearly 75 percent of 2,462 teachers surveyed said that the Internet and search engines had a “mostly positive” impact on student research skills and that “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 Make Use of 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
10 Tricks for Capturing Your Students’ Attention
1. Begin with motivation.
Students need to feel motivated to pay attention. Why should they stay interested in the topic? What’s in it for them? Although you can’t realistically motivate twenty or thirty students with individualised instruction during each lesson, you can try to appeal more generally to the things that keep learners alert—for example, by grounding theoretical concepts in real-life scenarios and drawing on examples from students’ daily routines.
2. Keep it multi-modal.
We all learn more efficiently when information is presented to us in multiple modes, i.e. visually, auditorily, kinesthetically, etc. In their book, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (2014), Hattie and Yates write, “We are all visual learners, and we all are auditory learners, not just some of us. Laboratory studies reveal that we all learn when the inputs we experience are multi-modal or conveyed through different media.”
Here are a few resources on how to use animations and storyboards as a teaching tool.
3. Engage the senses.
Italian educator Maria Montessori demonstrated how powerful it can be to let children see, touch, hear, smell, or taste what they’re learning. She found that, when they were provided with materials to enhance their sensory perception and teach them “practical, daily living skills in a child-focused, respectful way,” her students “appeared to revel in the exploration that they offered, concentrating on them for prolonged periods.”
4. Incorporate regular free play.
The government of Finland has decided that all grade-school students should receive 15 minutes of free play time during every hour of class. The research supports this method: Analysing higher brain regions following periods of abundant social play in juvenile animals, Gregory & Kaufeldt found that one-third of all the genes they monitored were “significantly jogged one way or another by the playful activities.” They explain: “Without a regular diet of fun social engagements, children become hungry for play and begin to ‘act out,’ potentially disrupting the flow of classroom instructional activities.”
5. Involve students in lesson plans.
The logic behind this one is quite simple: people like to design experiences for themselves and for others. If students have personally contributed to a lesson, they’re much more likely to stay interested to see how it plays out.
6. Target students’ “proximal zone of development.”
It’s a bit like Goldilocks and the three bears: if material is too hard, attention wanders; if it’s too easy, attention wanders. Shooting right in the middle, within what Vygotsky called students’ “proximal zone of development,” maximises the odds they’ll stay interested and alert.
Here’s a bit more on how information overload can shut off a student’s desire to learn.
7. Make them laugh.
Nothing wins attention like a good joke. Students listen to teachers who know how to incorporate humour into their material. Joke about yourself, the weather, the irony of a concept…anything can work.
8. Incorporate the unexpected.
Educator and psychologist Annie Murphy Paul says it’s a good rule of thumb to “shake things up” every 15 minutes or so during class, whether it’s to crack a joke, tell a story, show a picture, or explain your topic using a different medium. “Human beings quickly become habituated to the status quo,” she says. “When something in our environment shifts, however, we start paying attention again.”
9. Make ideas concrete and relevant.
“The human mind can’t handle too much abstraction,” writes Paul. “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.”
Read more about the importance of relevance in this article.
10. Capture ideas in a narrative.
“Researchers who study human cognition say that stories are ‘psychologically privileged,’ Paul says. “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.”
Read more storytelling tips for educators here.