Six Powerful Ways to Cultivate Student Attention and Promote Student Success

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I always imagined that as my experience with teaching grew, I would be able to better motivate students and help focus my students. It turns out that with each passing year, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to capture and hold a student’s attention and focus during my lessons.  And I refuse to be that person who blames the millennial/TikTok generation, COVID, or believe I’ve lost my capacity to reach my students.   

I was recently reminded of some older psychological principles and current neuroscience studies that assisted me in better understanding the realities of how tough it may be for students to pay attention and focus.  While there are still obstacles to helping students stay focused (and potentially even new challenges), I’ve established that it’s essential for me to have the right perspective on this problem.   

I determined it’s not my purpose to change the habits of my students or to set limitations or constraints on them.  Instead, it is vital that I investigate concrete strategies for greatly increasing students’ involvement in learning. This article synthesizes the results of my own scholarship of teaching, and wide range of literature and studies, to determine the six most powerful ways to “cultivate” the attention of students for greater success in learning.   

Research in the areas of cognitive psychology and neuroscience offer a fundamental understanding of attention as the first step in putting information into our working memory (Kahneman, 1973). Our cognitive resources do, however, have a limit; therefore, we must always choose from the available resources that we can pay attention to. Additionally, studies have found that mastering new skills need “effortful processing” or “conscious attention” (Triesman & Galade, 1980). 

Perhaps what inspired me the most in terms of understanding this topic was a book published right before Covid called, Distracted: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it. Lang reviews the vast literature on this subject which indicates our minds are easily distracted but may be able to focus intensely under certain conditions (2020). Although it can be difficult to get our scattered minds to concentrate, he argues that it is still possible, and in fact, there are many instances of intense focus and engagement.  Also, as teachers we should have empathy for value and purposefully foster attention in the classroom (Lang, 2020). 

There appears to be additional issues with garnering and maintaining attention when teaching online.  Several studies point to decreased course satisfaction by students and feelings of isolation and loneliness (Bramer, 2020, Klemm et al., 2020, Orhan and Beyhan, 2020). A new term, “Zoom fatigue,” was coined as describing the feelings of tiredness, worry, or burnout with the overuse of Zoom (Lee, 2020). 

During the last two semesters, including online and in-person courses, I experimented and implemented several specific strategies to cultivate attention in the classroom. I began to monitor participation patterns and made adjustments to the courses to include more and varied opportunities for engagement. My informal research methods included collecting self-perception data from students on what they found most helpful for staying engaged.  

The overarching result that emerged from my personal experimentation and research was determining a framework of six categories to cultivate a student’s attention. Take some time to reflect on how well you utilize these strategies in your own classrooms.   

1. Connect

One of the most effective ways to gain students’ attention is to pay attention to them. When you know the names of your students and get to know their personality traits, they are significantly more likely to listen to what you have to say.  Connection entails creating a safe, welcoming, and inclusive classroom environment in which students may freely participate and express themselves. However, a connection can also take another shape. You must share your own personality as well as personalize the content for them.  Using real-life examples, current events, and personal experiences in order to make the content of the lesson more accessible to students will go a long way toward keeping students engaged.   

2. Create

I find that when students are involved in creating something, they are usually engaged. Notice the key word here is create. Engagement also works when giving menial tasks but there is not full engagement until my students are asked to do something real, different, and challenging. I have had students create posters and memes of the topics we are studying.  Even using technology like Slido embedded in a PowerPoint and asking students to request key words in order to make a class Word Cloud was deemed an engaging activity. Simple tasks like having students form groups and summarize key concepts with words and images on giant Post-it notes and post somewhere in the room helps get students actively moving about the classroom. 

3. Change

It is important to consider attention spans in determining the structure and pace of your lessons.  Use a variety of teaching methods to accommodate different learning styles and keep students engaged. In his book, Lang describes a “modular” approach to thinking about teaching that helped me understand how purposeful changes in a class session can really help the class move along and keep students engaged.  I have become much more purposeful in my lessons and follow a Present-Process-Practice sequence for every 50 minutes of instruction.  I try to engage students at the beginning of class with an important question, then present on that topic for 15-20 minutes with interesting impactful slides. Next, I give students time to interact by processing what they learned through an activity like Think-Pair-Share.  Finally, I provide a meaningful real-life scenario in which students can apply what they learned.  Online, I’m even more careful to select appropriate times for actively taking notes, breakout discussions, and then activities. One student provided feedback on the class flow stating, “I would almost start daydreaming and then I would be put in a breakout room, so it was perfect.”   

4. Charisma

 I know, I know…as professors we don’t all have that natural charisma. Our talent comes from the deep intellectual knowledge of our subject matter, which is not always the most fun. And I understand that we don’t want to feel like we are providing entertainment (and can’t keep up with that business).  But I believe there is something about your personality that can shine. Maybe it’s a deep introspection—work that more!  Perhaps you are a “wanna be” stand-up comedian (that’s me).  What unites us as professors, I believe, is our shared passion for the subject matter. Showing enthusiasm has proven to be a huge selling point in what I am sharing.  If I don’t care, why should my students?  The students I teach also don’t appear to have a ton of energy when walking into the classroom, and I have found that being energetic helps them stay alert and pay attention better. What qualities do you have that you can emphasize more that may end up engaging your students at higher levels? 

5. Collaborate

Encourage students to ask questions, share their ideas, and participate in class discussions. While observing a faculty member’s teaching, I identified at least three instances during the lecture where opportunities existed to break up the monotony and introduce collaborative learning. This is a critical part of “processing” the content, mentioned earlier in the article. In Zoom classes, students said it was essential to keep their focus by providing “breakout rooms that allowed us to speak to our peers and engage in the topics.” 

6. Check for understanding

I have found that providing online quizzes and interactive whiteboards can help to engage students, monitor progress on learning, and provide feedback. One student remarked that my practice of inquiring about their learning experience proved effective in maintaining their engagement and holding them responsible for mastering the material. I found that this approach was most successful when implemented through brief quizzes, offering immediate feedback to both the students and me, and through the use of exit slips, which I could review and use for future lesson planning and revisions. 

Conclusions

Once I discovered these themes, I asked students to rank the components in order to determine the impact they were having on their learning.  According to the students, a professor who had charisma while presenting lessons was the number one area. This included someone who used humor, brought positive energy, a dynamic voice, and emotion. Additionally, collaboration or putting students in groups to discuss was a great way to stay engaged.  The lowest ranked category for the instructor was “Checking for understanding” or holding students accountable for learning.    

I recognize that maintaining focus on a class session requires effort from both students and myself.  While it can be harder to manage my students’ behaviors, I did encourage them to reflect on their own behaviors that led to greater engagement.  Interestingly, the results of students’ self-reflections indicated that taking notes was the main approach used by students to stay engaged. Staying physically and mentally healthy were also mentioned by students as being important. For online courses, being in a distraction-free environment was important and having camera expectations during Zoom was mentioned.  

Understanding and cultivating attention is a necessary part of a teacher’s responsibility to support learning. By implementing specific strategies, professors can increase student engagement and participation in the classroom which can lead to a deeper understanding of the material and better learning outcomes.  

Additional reading list for learning more about cultivating students’ attention:

  • Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again, by Johann Hari 
  • The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind, by B. Alan Wallace 
  • Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, by Daniel Goleman  
  • How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching, by Joshua R. Eyler 

Dr. Pratt has dedicated his career to helping students, from kindergarten to college as a public-school teacher and university professor. He currently serves as an associate professor of teacher education at Purdue University Northwest. Dr. Pratt’s area of focus is educational psychology, technology and assessment. His recent work includes being hired as a consultant for a school corporation in Indianapolis to help teachers understand how to implement a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum.

He has presented all over the county on this topic of incorporating strategies of SEL, not only in K-12 but in college. More recently, Dr. Pratt has been nominated and accepted into a group that is examining more closely how the brain works and is currently being trained in Neurosequential Modeling. This work is designed to allow Dr. Pratt to guide educators even further in understanding how students think and behave and provides specific strategies to help all learners thrive. As an expert in technology integration, Dr. Pratt has focused his efforts on developing and publishing new frameworks to engage students more in using technology collaboratively and in ways that help students think more creatively. He is on the cutting edge (as a nationally certified technology teacher) and incorporates through publications, presentations, and consulting work in helping teachers’ future teachers understand appropriate usage of technology and helping to create better “digital citizens” and to keep them safe online.

References 

Bramer C. (2020).  Preregistration adult nursing students’ experiences of online learning: a qualitative study. Br. J. Nurs.29(12):677–683. doi: 10.12968/bjon.2020.29.12.677.  

Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and Effort. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 

Klemm P.R., Ruelens-Trinkaus D., Allshouse L.M., Barnard P.J. (2020). The COVID-19 pandemic and higher education: common interdisciplinary issues and lessons learned. Open J. Nurs. 10:1195–1208. doi: 10.4236/ojn.2020.1012086.  

Lang J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it (First). Basic Books Hachette Book Group. 

Lee J. (2020). A neuropsychological exploration of Zoom fatigue. Psychiatric 37(11):38–39 

Lyon, & Krasnegor, N. A. (1996). Attention, memory, and executive function. P.H. Brookes Pub. Co. 

Orhan G., Beyhan O.(2020). Teachers’ perceptions and teaching experiences on distance education through synchronous video conferencing during Covid-19 pandemic. Soc. Sci. Educ. Res. Rev.7(1):8–44. 

Robinson, C. C., & Hullinger, H. (2008). New benchmarks in higher education: Student engagement in online learning. Journal of Education for Business, 84(2), 101–109 

Treisman, A. M., & Gelade, G. (1980). A feature-integration theory of attention. Cognitive Psychology, 12(1), 97–136. https://doi.org/10.1016/0010-0285(80)90005-5 

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