How to get your students’ attention and how to keep it

Grabbing students’ attention is tough at the best of times, but amid the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, it is even harder. To help, Marc Smith delves into the research on attention and pinpoints key things teachers can do
20th March 2020, 12:04am
Research On Holding Pupil Attention


How to get your students’ attention and how to keep it

Most people think they know if they have someone’s full attention, based on signs such as eye contact, head nodding, facial expressions that match the words being said, and a visible avoidance of distraction.

But, unfortunately, these are not very reliable markers. I can look you in the eye and not process a word you are saying; I can nod at your explanation while thinking about doughnuts; I can get enough of the gist of a topic to make the appropriate facial expressions and responses but still be planning what I am going to have for dinner; and I may look like I am ignoring the squirrel outside the window but I most definitely am not.

Teachers know this already, so they put in place countermeasures. They pose frequent questions, they throw in seemingly random facts, they chunk lessons into digestible morsels and they shoot squirrels. (OK, maybe not the last one.)

But does that mean teachers understand enough about pupil attention to make sure it is in their possession at all times? Probably not. Attention is fiendishly complex - even with those teacher checks in place, there are no guarantees that you are actually, fully, properly getting through to children.

Teenagers and children now face an onslaught of distraction. Never before have so many things been screaming for their attention and their anxiety levels are creeping up, providing plenty of internal distractions, too. If schools end up teaching children remotely, teachers will need to be even more secure in attention-grabbing pedagogy.

This paints quite a bleak picture. But there is hope. And it comes from knowing more about attention so that you can, perhaps, get a stronger hold on it.

What do we mean by attention? It’s a bit of a catch-all term but, broadly speaking, it is the process of selecting task-relevant information and minimising irrelevant information (Hanania and Smith, 2010). For example, if you are lighting a fire, you focus on where you are putting the match, not on the programme on the television, the sound of cars going past the window, the light level in the room, the smell of dinner wafting through from the kitchen or any of the other hundreds of information strands streaming in through your senses.

Perhaps a better description, then, is that attention is the process of selecting what is necessary at a particular moment and filtering out the competition. How much competition is there in a classroom? Quite a bit. And how much at home? Even more. That’s a problem because in order to learn the content - to remember it - we need to pay attention to it.

We are suckers for that competition. It’s an issue that cognitive psychologist Colin Cherry referred to as the cocktail party problem (he coined the term in 1953 when, presumably, people attended cocktail parties). If we hear our name mentioned, if something elsewhere spikes our interest, if the waiter drops all the cocktails on the floor creating a tidal wave of mixed alcohol, we will shift our focus instantly.

This ability to flip our attention has obvious advantages for our survival, such as when we need to warn someone of an impending danger or quickly grab their attention for some other reason. We see this behaviour in non-human animals - an instinctual action that protects them from predators.

Rarely undivided

Our attention is not only easily led astray, it is also limited. For example, it’s very difficult to focus our attention on more than one task. When we try to, our cognitive resources have to be shared between tasks, resulting in poorer performance on all of them.

Even when we do try to focus on one task, this does not mean all our focus is on that thing. A widely accepted model of attention is that all information is being processed to some degree but only the attended to information is selected for deeper processing - so, a pupil might hear and acknowledge their teacher giving an explanation of the role of the narrator in Frankenstein but only deeply process Tyler talking in the background.

This is why we can sometimes get the gist of something we aren’t paying attention to, which can be enough to fool a teacher into thinking that a child is fully paying attention.

Of course, as well as non-task-related information, your attention capacity may be overloaded by the task itself - and this is where working memory is really important in the classroom. Working memory is your brain’s equivalent to an Instagram story: information is there for a bit but it will soon disappear unless you do something with it.

To complete a maths task or comprehend a text, you need to hold multiple chunks of information in your mind at once. A person can - on average - hold four chunks of information in their working memory (Cowan, 2000), although that figure can vary with different tasks, the individual concerned and other factors.

Our attention helps us to select those chunks and also manipulate them so that we can learn. Klaus Oberauer, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Zurich, suggests that we can opt for a broad focus of attention on all the stuff in our working memory, or a narrow focus in which one chunk is selected at a time (Oberauer and Hein, 2012). A pupil might, therefore, attempt a mathematical equation requiring several stages by holding several parts of the problem in their working memory (broad focus) but select only one chunk to complete a specific stage (narrow focus).

So, now we’re clear what attention is and where its limitations lie, how can we best harness it in the classroom? Is it possible to tailor lessons for optimum attention spans, reduce distractions and dictate where the focus of our pupils lies? And what about when the learning is happening at home?

It is very difficult to optimise a lesson for attention if you don’t know how long a child can focus for. Both working memory and attention are part of executive function, a group of higher-order cognitive skills that help people to perform other functions.

Spans and spectrums

Like all executive functions, attention follows a developmental trajectory, meaning that young children are much less adept at focusing their attention than older children. Indeed, the span of school ages provides a spectrum of attention capacity. Primary school children will succumb to distractions more easily than teenagers, and older adults are more skilled at focusing on a specific task.

But it doesn’t always work like that. Certain individual differences may have an impact, including anxiety, depression and conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. Other biological and physiological factors also play a role, including quality of sleep and certain medications.

For these reasons, it’s not an easy job to calculate an average attention span. Some studies have found that the attention span of an undergraduate student is about 10 to 15 minutes, after which they become increasingly distracted and switch off (Bradbury, 2016).

However, these studies are most often carried out in lecture theatres so generalising the finding to other environments, such as the classroom, isn’t possible.

It could be that attention is also related to how relevant, important or interesting the information is - after all, teenagers are often able to maintain intense focus when playing video games or engaging in activities unrelated to school. So, attention also influences motivation, which, in turn, relates to other factors, including rewards, the perceived value of the task and whether or not the activity serves a wider goal.

You see: it’s not as easy as just saying “pay attention or receive a detention”.

But what about “put your phone away or receive a detention”? Should we optimise attention in our classroom by banishing tech?

Some studies suggest that simply having a mobile phone close to us impairs our ability to concentrate (Thornton, Faires, Robbins et al, 2014).

Jessica Mendoza from the University of Alabama and her colleagues found that mobile phones do indeed impair the learning of students during lectures. However, for students scoring high on measures for nomophobia (the anxiety and discomfort that arises when people are separated from their phones), learning was impaired when phones were taken away (Mendoza, Pody, Lee et al, 2018). And the mobile phone could plausibly be used to positive effect if we were to borrow the attention-grabbing magic it has for a learning purpose.

Take from that what you will - nomophobia is a relatively new phenomenon and the use of edtech in education notoriously difficult to research - but banning mobiles in the name of attention is certainly not as simple as it may seem. Of course, if pupils are going to have to learn from home, the mobile may become a necessary learning device. In which case, that focus might prove useful. We just don’t know yet.

Displays are also tricky. There is a growing movement towards bare walls, with teachers arguing that lots of displays pull pupils’ focus away from the teacher. Anna Fisher, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, and her co-researchers did find that heavily decorated classrooms harmed concentration and learning (Fisher, Godwin and Seltman, 2014). Also, researchers at Durham University found classroom displays to be particularly problematic for autistic children (Hanley et al, 2017).

But again, it’s worth noting that research into the impact of classroom displays is sparse and studies focus on primary school children. Because the ability to filter out distractions and remain attentive develops, older children are likely to be less distracted by what is on the walls. No doubt, other factors will also play a role - for example, positioning and content of displays, and how frequently they are changed - and these variables are yet to be fully investigated. So, don’t put your staple gun away just yet.

What about behaviour? Last month, the education secretary called for silent corridors and the push from many schools has been zero tolerance of distractions in classrooms, too. While idle chatter, noises in the corridor or events unfolding outside the classroom window can distract pupils, you can’t avoid them all and there is an argument that you would not want to: being exposed to some distraction and learning to cope with it can help to nurture stronger distraction-avoidance strategies.

And finally, what about when we distract ourselves? Mind-wandering might be a bigger problem than external distractions because it is more difficult to identify and, therefore, more difficult to tackle.

Mind-wandering occurs when our brains become detached from a task and our thoughts begin to drift. It has been estimated that people engage in mind wandering about 50 per cent of the time (Killingsworth and Gilbert, 2010) and recent neuroimaging studies have linked the phenomenon to a cluster of brain regions that together make up what has been called the default mode network. This activates when the brain is at rest or once we have completed a task, suggesting that this is the brain’s default setting. Mind-wandering isn’t all bad, however, and has been linked to creativity and problem solving (Fox and Beaty, 2019).

Attention seeking is a good thing

Reading the above may have given you the impression that we are at the mercy of our attention’s whims and are thus powerless against its flights of fancy. But that’s not actually true.

The ability to maintain focus is a component of executive function, so initiatives that are designed to improve these higher-order cognitive skills will help. These could include behavioural changes, such as enforcing routines and encouraging the formation of good study habits.

How teachers can improve attention can take several forms. Targeted interventions are marginally successful. For example, Valentin Benzing, at the University of Bern in Switzerland, obtained encouraging results from the use of specially designed card games (Benzing, Schmidt, Jäger et al, 2018). The games target three skills related to executive function and encourage behaviours such as turn-taking and concentration. Contemplative practices, including mindfulness and yoga, have also produced some promising results (see Shapiro, Lyons, Miller et al, 2014).

Away from isolated “training”, many of the findings that have made their way into schools from cognitive science can be very useful for grabbing pupils’ attention. For example, chunking lessons into smaller components will likely prove helpful. How teachers deliver the material is obviously important but breaking down the structure of lessons will also help with problems of attention and issues related to working memory limitations.

Interleaving (in which information is shuffled with other information rather than being presented in a block of similar items) will be useful, too. By presenting different topics over a shorter period and inserting (or interleaving) them, teachers can reduce mind wandering and increase attention among pupils. And one would expect the above to be just as applicable for remote learning.

Less researched is the Slant (sit up, listen, ask and answer questions, nod your head, track the speaker) technique. This was popularised by Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, and it does make intuitive sense that it would have an impact. Preparing to pay attention by focusing on posture and explicitly instructing pupils to listen promotes positive learning behaviours and can trigger adaptive habits. Asking and answering questions provides teacher feedback.

That said, head nodding and tracking can be thought of as proxies for attention (as mentioned at the start of this article). Tracking the speaker may also divide attention rather than focus it, especially if tracking is required for extended periods. Some pupils may even find eye contact difficult or uncomfortable, and a few studies have discovered that breaking eye contact (or gaze aversion) is often necessary to reduce the load placed on limited cognitive resources (Doherty-Sneddon, Riby and Whittle, 2012).

What we are pretty sure does not work is fidget spinners. Despite claims of their use improving attention, a recent study found that the devices make no difference to attention and lead to lower performance on memory tests (Soares and Storm, 2019).

So, there you have it. Learning does not happen by osmosis: we need to grab pupils’ attention as much as we can. At present, research can offer us some scraps of guidance about how we might do that but should not be consulted alone in our search for focus.

Ultimately, sharing teacher experience non-judgementally and with an open mind is just as essential. Attention is a complex beast, but by better understanding it and sharing what works, we may just be able to domesticate it.

Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and teacher. He is the author of The Emotional Learner and Psychology in the Classroom (with Jonathan Firth) and tweets @marcxsmith

This article originally appeared in the 20 March 2020 issue under the headline “Attention, please!”

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