The Teaching Corner
Are They Paying Attention?
Dr. Christopher Richmann - Assistant Director, Academy for Teaching and Learning
Twenty minutes into class, you look out across the room and “read” the students. Some are looking at you intently. Others have their eyes closed, chin resting in hand. Several are talking back and forth. A couple are typing feverishly on laptops. Even more are hidden behind their computers.
Are they paying attention? It’s not a simple question since you always have incomplete evidence. After all, without seeing a student’s computer screen, typing can mean faithful notetaking or shopping for boots. Those of us teaching online or hybrid courses face an added challenge—you need to scroll across the Zoom display to “read the room,” and the visual information is flattened into a two-dimensional square displaying the student from shoulders up, often poorly lit. And, oh yeah, a third of the Zooming students don’t have their cameras on.
The evidence for student attention is also situational. During a lecture, attentive students are probably the ones looking at the instructor rather than chatting. But if the intended activity is small group discussion, the signs of attention might be reversed.
Regardless of our teaching “modality,” we are all concerned with student attention. Partly this is ego. Student attention means they are reciprocating the attention we devoted to the class session, in learning our disciplines, preparing learning activities, and actively working to engage students. But attention is not just a matter of validating the instructor. Attention is directly related to learning, as James Lang reminds us in his new book, Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. We, therefore, have every reason to care deeply that our students are paying attention.
Student attention seems like a growing challenge for our teaching. Even prior to a global pandemic that now looms over our teaching like some apocalyptic force, instructors sensed that student attention was increasingly under assault by technology. The question of attention span is especially acute for instructors who use extended lectures. COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem: research shows that online students are more distracted than in-person students.
Lang helpfully reminds us, though, that teachers—and learners—have always been frustrated by the distractibility of the human mind. Before cell phones or laptops came into the classroom, students were distracted, but they were more resourceful about it—daydreaming, doodling, furtively studying for another class (remember “passing notes?”). Aristotle noticed, for instance, that audiences reached for more snacks if they were not particularly enthralled by a performance. Augustine complained that when he was trying to pray, his attention wandered to the most mundane sights, like a lizard catching flies.
This historical perspective is just one of several ways Lang reorients our common thinking about student attention. It is related to an anthropological claim. Human brains are wired to be distractible. Effortlessly attuning to novelty—especially in sight and sound—is what kept our prehistoric ancestors alive—able to spot both predator and prey. This should foster some humility when approaching the issue of student attention. We are all susceptible to distraction—unless, of course, you’ve never checked email or sent a text during a meeting.
These insights, says Lang, suggest “a fundamental shift in our thinking: away from preventing distraction and toward cultivating attention.” (Note, however, that experiments in temporarily eliminating technology distractions can be quite fruitful.) The mental proclivity for novelty, for instance, means that instructors should vary learning activities—both within a class session and across class sessions. We should offer more opportunities for creation since creating is about connecting what is seemingly unrelated (read: happened upon while “distracted”). The innate attraction to visual stimuli sends a clear message about effective PowerPoints.
Despite our distractibility, what sets humans apart, of course, is the capacity for focus. Distractibility helped our prehistoric ancestors survive, but focus enabled our ancient ancestors to write laws and build cities. Such focus is, Lang says, “an achievement,” and it flourishes with the help of a hospitable environment. Lang suggests leaning into students’ self-interest since the research is clear that we pay attention to what matters to us. This means using students’ names as much as possible and giving them opportunities to relate the material to their own experiences.
But this is not a cynical view. Attention is also cultivated in “purer” ways, such as appealing to students’ curiosity. Lang argues that too many teachers focus on providing answers to questions students never have. We should begin and structure our courses with questions—both “big” questions that confront all thinking creatures and the questions our students bring with them.
Nor does Lang’s advice exclude the classic tools of student motivation, like grades. Although we should consider how excessive emphasis on extrinsic motivators (like grades) can diminish intrinsic motivation and exacerbate anxieties, Lang suggests that we strategically use the attention they cultivate. After all, students may never be as attentive as they are on test day. And since testing itself improves knowledge and understanding, this would seem to be a responsible use of student attention. But lower-stakes assessments, like brief writing, can also nudge students to give attention when they might not otherwise.
We will never fully know if our students are paying attention. But we know that attention matters, and thanks to a growing body of research and insightful summaries like Lang’s Distracted, we can more intentionally cultivate their attention for learning.