Michael Hobbiss and Jenni Kemp

How to keep pupils’ attention in a Covid classroom

The Covid-restricted classroom has made the already difficult job of getting students’ attention even harder – and that is a big risk to the amount of learning being done in classrooms. But is there a way you can wrestle back learners’ focus despite everything that’s going on? Jennifer Kemp and Michael Hobbiss think there is

How to keep pupils’ attention in a Covid classroom

Teachers are now confined to the front of the classroom, unable to circulate and monitor pupils’ focus or redirect it with a quiet word.

Meanwhile, the windows and doors are wide open to the sights and sounds of the hustle and bustle (and the PE lessons) outside, the lessons are much longer and the various school routines are much more complex for students to remember. 

Clearly, the coronavirus-restricted classroom is a more distracting classroom, and one that makes distraction more difficult to manage. Learning is suddenly a lot harder.

In such circumstances, an appreciation of what the science can tell us about attention in the classroom – how we should think about it and how we can regulate it, even under our present restrictions – becomes more valuable.

And it was hugely important before. For every one-point increase in inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity on a scale of 1-9 measured when a child is seven years old, both boys and girls achieve, on average, one whole GCSE grade lower at the age of 16 (Sayal, Washbrook and Propper, 2015). Importantly, this link is linear, meaning that the effects of inattention are felt across the whole cohort, rather than just (as we might sometimes imagine) at the “clinical” end of the spectrum with diagnosed conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

An interest in attention, then, is not just the preserve of the Sendco; all of our students will be impacted by their relative ability to control their attention – all the more so under our extraordinary current circumstances.

So 3, 2, 1 … pens down, headphones out, and let’s get into the details.

Fatal distraction

It is generally no surprise to teachers to hear that our attention systems are limited, but we might not always appreciate just how limited.

In experiments, filling up our attention capacity can often be done by making participants monitor six letters (for example, by asking them to determine whether the letter “X” or “N” is present among a selection of six letters presented on a screen). This simple task is enough to mean that adults are not affected by the appearance of a distracting stimulus (a brightly coloured cartoon character or a moving object) on the same screen (Beck, Rees, Frith and Lavie, 2001; Forster and Lavie, 2008). In some cases they are not even aware of the distraction (Lavie, Beck and Konstantinou, 2014). 

The fact that our attention capacity can be so easily, and so conclusively, filled as to prevent the processing of other information is, we would argue, something that has important implications for classroom practice, and it throws into sharp focus many of the attitudes we might have towards attention.

Firstly, on the negative side, the severe restrictions of our attention capacity mean that we can’t assume that any information we present to students will be learned unless their attention is entirely focused on the task in hand. Sometimes teachers (ourselves included) have assumed that lessons would sink in over time, even if we knew that some students’ minds were partially elsewhere. 

However, knowing how easily our limited-capacity attention systems can be filled, and knowing how little processing is performed on anything outside of that capacity, leads to a bleaker conclusion: the slightly distracted student in your classroom may well not be processing the material at all. They may not even be aware of it being presented.

On the more positive side, however, a limited-capacity attention system ensures that, if students are fully engaged in the lesson, with their attention capacity occupied by task-relevant information, they are likely to be far more resistant to distraction.

Yet, unfortunately, classrooms are very distracting places. In recent research focusing upon secondary school lessons, students reported being distracted by a range of different stimuli, including other people, background noise, mind-wandering, social networks, electronic devices, displays and looking out of the window, among others (Hobbiss, 2019). The average student reported being aware of distractions for over 50 per cent of the measured lesson.

This fits with older observational studies that found that elementary students spent between 25 per cent and 50 per cent of instructional time off-task (Karweit and Slavin, 1981).

Two main conclusions emerge from this research: students are distracted a lot of the time, by a lot of different things; and this clearly has implications for us, as teachers, trying to design and manage our classrooms in the context of students’ limited attentions (if anything, younger people’s attention capacity is likely to be even more limited than adults’) and of the stipulated safety measures and procedures during the Covid pandemic.

It’s a wonder we manage to ensure that any learning happens at all in more normal times, so is controlling attention in the Covid classroom an impossible task?

On the face of it, the Covid-secure classroom is, indeed, a nightmare when it comes to attention. In addition to the loss of many of our tools that we use for attention control, a common experience of teachers is that classrooms with their windows and doors flung open – as the government guidance states should now happen – have higher levels of ambient background noise.

Background classroom noise has been found to negatively impact reading comprehension and word learning in adolescents (Connolly et al, 2019) and may have negative effects on creativity in children, depending on their initial attention control skills (Massonnié, Rogers, Mareschal and Kirkham, 2019).

It’s not clear whether noise needs to be above a certain level to distract (Connolly et al, 2019, found some suggestions of this), so it’s possible that relatively quiet background hubbub may not be too harmful, at least to some people (especially students with better working memory capacity; Lehmann and Seufert, 2017). But school background noise can be intermittent and unpredictable and so is more likely to prove interfering to students.

Open doors and windows can also negatively affect the acoustics in classrooms, which in some places may have been further impaired through personal protective measures for teachers such as screens or masks. The processing of degraded speech (such as when sounds are slightly muffled) requires increased effort and harms learning, but also imposes a greater cognitive load, and so increases susceptibility to distraction (Wagner, Toffanin and Başkent, 2016).

Another important factor is anxiety: it increases our susceptibility to distraction during cognitive tasks (Dolcos and McCarthy, 2006). Therefore, anxious or stressed students are more likely to also be distracted ones. At the moment, we will likely have many anxious students.

If that wasn’t enough, as stated earlier, a number of schools have adopted timetables with longer lessons (or increased the numbers of double and even triple periods) to cut down on student movement. Attention tends to decrease over time (this has usually been measured over an hour-long lecture in a university setting – eg, Bradbury, 2016; Bunce, Flens and Neiles, 2010; Wilson and Korn, 2007). Although within a given time period it also fluctuates considerably both within and between individuals, and can be dependent on other environmental variables, such as the topic, student interest, instructional format and myriad other factors; for example, whether a bee chooses that moment to explore that particular room.

Despite these variations, what seems likely is that two- or three-hour lessons will place significant demands on sustained attention skills, especially for younger students.

The Covid effect

How much more difficult are these factors making attentional control for students, compared with the already distracting classroom environment pre-Covid? We actually don’t know. However, the research suggests that the listed additional appeals to our wandering focus are not things students will gradually “get used to” and therefore begin to ignore. In short, we can expect these negative impacts to be ongoing.

More positively, some other harmful effects on attention brought in by Covid restrictions are likely to have been more short-lived. One of the abiding experiences of the past few months has been the flood of new policies, procedures and regulations governing school life, many of which are frequently being reviewed and modified. Remembering new routines is initially likely to increase cognitive load, which increases the likelihood of distraction (Carmel, Fairnie and Lavie, 2012).

In addition, classrooms are now adorned with notices and displays outlining hygiene measures, social distancing reminders, new timetables and so on. These are potential new distractions made all the more salient by their importance.

Fortunately, as procedures have become more embedded and habitual, so their cognitive load will have reduced. Similarly, passive viewing of consistent visual stimuli leads to rapid “habituation”, whereby their ability to distract us reduces as we become used to them over time (Bonetti, 2019). Therefore any visual changes to surroundings this term, introduced as a result of Covid, are unlikely to still be presenting a sustained interference to students by now.

Also positive is the fact that, in an attempt to reduce face-to-face contact where possible, many schools have opted for classroom seating arrangements involving rows. Although most research on seating arrangements has focused on the rather broader measure of “time on task” rather than attention specifically, row seating is generally associated with improvements over other arrangements (Wannarka and Ruhl, 2008). 

Concurrent reductions in group work or classroom discussion may also have some positive impacts on attention, as distraction by other students is one of the most reported distractions experienced by students in the classroom (Hobbiss, 2019). Although clearly teachers may feel that
there are other challenges produced by both of these changes.

Admittedly, compared with the extensive list of negatives that are being piled on an already tricky classroom environment in terms of attention, these few positives may seem paltry, but it’s important not to become fatalistic about our control of students’ attention: just because it is tricky, it doesn’t mean it is impossible.

Grabbing pupils’ attention

So can we actually navigate the distractions and increase attention on task? The obvious place to start is to try to reduce the distractions that we can control. However, there is a catch here: there may be a trade-off when controlling for some distractions, in that our controls may make other distractions more likely.

A good example is that in environments where external distractions have been minimised (such as silent study rooms), distraction by mind-wandering may increase (Robison and Unsworth, 2015). As a result, simply eliminating one distraction may not be a silver bullet for attention.

Still, it’s undoubtedly true that attempting to control classroom distraction is one valuable way to ensure that our students’ limited attentional capacities are used to their maximum benefit as we move through this extended period of increased constraints on our teaching. 

Probably the most important thing is to continue to do all the things that we, as teachers, have learned are effective, and to persist with them as best we can. Strategies that successfully promote engagement and active involvement in lessons – be they mini-whiteboards, questioning techniques, storytelling, quizzing or any of the other procedures that colleagues have found effective and honed through their practice – are still likely to be your best bets in a Covid classroom. The baby needs to stay, even as the viral bathwater is sloshed out.

At the same time, however, some recent research does suggest potential strategies that could positively impact on student attention, and that also have the added benefit of being implemented at a safe distance.

Researchers (Robison, Unsworth and Brewer, 2020) recently examined the effect of three interventions (goal-setting, feedback and incentives) on “vigilance” (the ability to maintain attention during relatively easy and boring tasks over a prolonged period of time) and on mind-wandering.

Interestingly, incentives (either free time or money) mostly didn’t improve performance. This perhaps suggests that attention may not be greatly affected by extrinsic motivation, which is an interesting thought.

Instead, the most effective intervention, which improved attention and reduced mind-wandering in the task, was having a combination of a very specific goal and regular feedback on how well the goal was being met.

Now, of course, we all set goals for students (“your target grade is …”, “next essay try to …”), but what distinguished these particular targets (and the feedback on them) was how regular and specific they were.

The research suggests that it may be beneficial for teachers to incorporate highly specific performance goals (and feedback on those) into the structure of every task they set in the classroom (“I can see that most people have recalled at least four key words from the last lesson on their whiteboards; aim to add at least two more in the next 30 seconds.” “Last year’s Year 12 were able to successfully answer 70 per cent of these recall questions – see if you can beat that score.” “Write a paragraph on x; aim to write at least 200 words in the next five minutes.” And so on).

A second strategy is suggested by a study of mind-wandering, though the lessons would appear to be applicable to attention in general.

Zedelius, Protzko and Schooler (2020) looked at study participants’ beliefs about how much control they had over their attention. They found that participants who believed that they could not control their own thoughts reported experiencing more mind-wandering (as well as more anxious and depressive thoughts, and less effective strategies to control their thoughts).

Therefore, there seems to be a mindset element to mind-wandering frequency and content.

Importantly, Zedelius et al also shows that this mindset can be manipulated. When participants were given a reading that suggested that mind-wandering was within a person’s control, they reported less mind-wandering than a group who read that mind-wandering was uncontrollable.

They then went further and demonstrated that the most effective method for reducing mind-wandering during a reading task was to combine the information that mind-wandering was controllable with instructions to read the text “with curiosity” or to “engage deeply with the contents”.

Building on these findings, one approach that we have taken in our classrooms this year is to emphasise that mind-wandering (and attention more generally) is a process that students have a large degree of control over. Following an initial induction at the start of the year to introduce the same mindset that Zedelius et al used in their study (indeed the specific dialogue used by them is available in the paper for adaptation to the classroom if desired), we have since been able to remind any student whom we suspect of being distracted or mind-wandering that they are in control of their own attention, and request they use that power to bring it back to task.

In tandem with this, we have also put an increased focus on encouraging deeper reading and curiosity at every turn. Instead of simply saying, for example, “Read this and let me know if you have any questions,” as we might sometimes have done in the past, this year we are making an effort to say something more like: “Read this and think really deeply about what the text is telling you. If anything arouses your curiosity, then ask me at the end. I’m looking forward to some great questions. The deeper you think about it the more you will learn.”

Does all of this work? It certainly seems to help. And we should really try to hang on to these little things that help at the moment. We’re all doing our best in this strange and varied new world. Yes, that world is more distracting for our pupils, but we hope that this article makes keeping their focus on learning, despite everything that’s going on, that much easier. 

That said, if a wasp flies in through the window, then, sorry, you’re on your own. 

Jennifer Kemp and Michael Hobbiss are teachers at Bourne Grammar School in Lincolnshire

This article originally appeared in the 13 November 2020 issue under the headline “The centre of attention”

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