Attention is how the mind prioritizes. The brain’s attention circuits stay busy throughout our waking hours, directing on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis where our limited cognitive resources are going to go, monitoring the information that floods into our senses, and shaping conscious experience. Attention is one of the most mysterious and compelling topics in cognitive science. Years of research on the subject are now paying off handsomely in the form of recent advances in our understanding of how these mechanisms work, on both theoretical and physiological levels. And the more we learn, the more we realize that these findings aren’t just important for theory-building -- they offer myriad practical applications that can help people function more effectively across all aspects of life. Teaching and learning is one area where attention research is especially useful for helping us get better at what we do.
In my book Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, I foreground attention as the starting point for everything designers of college-level online learning experiences should know about human cognition. Without attention, much of what we want students to accomplish -- taking in new information, making new connections, acquiring and practicing new skills -- simply doesn’t happen. And thus, gaining students’ focus is a necessary first step in any well-designed learning activity, whether online or face-to-face.
But how does this principle play out in a contemporary learning environment littered with tempting distractions -- the smartphones that accompany students to class, social networks that let us reach out to friends around the clock, the sites for games, media, and shopping that beckon every time we open our browsers? It’s especially concerning given how overly optimistic people tend to be about their ability to juggle different tasks. As psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simon eloquently explain in The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, human beings are notoriously bad at knowing what we can handle, attention-wise. Essentially, we lie to ourselves about what we notice and what we know, believing that we take in much more that we actually do.
For our students, this adds up to a serious drain on learning. And as learning environments become more complex, it is a drain they can’t afford. Consider, for example, some forms of blended learning in which students master foundational knowledge outside of class, usually through online work, then spend class time on focused application and interaction with instructors and classmates. A tightly scheduled and synchronized system like this can work beautifully, but doesn’t allow much margin of error for wasted time and scattered focus.
So what can we do about this situation? One strategy is to educate students about the limits of attention and just how much they miss when they choose to multitask. This, however, is easier said than done. Incorporating a learning module on attention is straightforward enough, but what would it take for such a module to be effective? First, it would need to be brief and to the point, reinforcing just a few crucial take-home messages without a great deal of history, theory or other background more appropriate to a full-length course in cognition. At the same time, quality control would be a major concern, especially for the module to be usable by an instructor without academic training in cognitive psychology. Just Googling for materials on attention brings up at least as much pseudoscience as reputable work, and without this solid scientific grounding, a module on the dangers of multitasking could easily devolve into a “Reefer Madness”-style experience, more laughable than persuasive.
Keeping these caveats firmly in mind, I’ve worked with my instructional designer colleague John Doherty to create a free-standing, one-shot online learning module called Attention Matters that instructors can drop into existing courses as an extra credit or required assignment. Besides being scrupulous about the science, John and I prioritized interactivity and use of the multimedia capabilities of online learning -- enabling us to show students, not just tell them, what distraction can do to performance in different contexts. Too many online learning activities consist essentially of glorified PowerPoint slides, so although there is a certain amount of text within our module, we put most of the emphasis on media, demonstrations, self-assessment and discussion.
As an example, we used a demonstration we called the “Selective Reading Challenge” to show students how attention mechanisms constantly filter incoming information, and also, how little we remember of information we don’t attend to. The demonstration consists of a page of text, alternating lines of bold and regular typefaces. Students are instructed to pay attention to only the bold lines, ignoring everything else, then proceed immediately to the next page. In the “to be ignored” text, we hide a few stimuli that may break through to awareness -- a couple of common names (Michael, Emily, Stephen, Christina), that if they belong to you, will probably pop out, as well as a few attention-grabbing emotional terms (911, murder). After completing the “selective reading,” students are invited to go back review the entire page of text -- bold and regular -- to see what they missed, and what they (likely) don’t remember at all even though it was well within the field of vision.
Other demonstrations illustrate the dramatic slowdown in processing that takes place when we multitask among competing activities. We present an online version of the classic “Stroop effect” to illustrate how distraction -- even from other mental processes going on at the same time -- can make a simple activity slow and inaccurate. The task involves naming the colors of a sequence of multicolored words -- not a difficult task, except when the words are themselves color names. red, green, blue, and so on – that contradict the colors they are printed in. Lastly, we pulled in several video clips from around the Web to drive home the multitasking point. One shows a prank “driving test” in which unsuspecting students were told to text while navigating a practice course, with predictably disastrous results. Another classic clip called “The Amazing Color Changing Card Trick,” created by psychologist Richard Wiseman, dramatically illustrates how attending to one part of a scene causes us to miss major developments going on in practically the same location.
These videos, activities and demonstrations form the anchor for brief, impactful student learning activities throughout the module. Students respond to discussion prompts asking them whether the demonstrations worked on them as predicted, and what they may mean for everyday attention. They also complete self-quizzes with feedback that target the different learning outcomes for each part of the module. At the end, they revisit what they have learned in a brief self-reflection and survey on attitudes and beliefs about attention and its importance for learning.
Attention Matters is an exciting project, offering us the opportunity to apply cognitive science in a novel and – we hope – useful way. The project also has a research component, through which we will be gathering data on student attitudes and beliefs about their own attentional capabilities, as well as on the frequency of different multitasking behaviors in their own lives.
There’s another important side to Attention Matters, and that has to do with the collaboration between an instructional design expert and a Subject Matter Expert, or SME. Much has been written about the virtues of instructional design experts’ pairing up with SMEs, and yet, such collaborations remain fairly rare within higher education. We hope that this project demonstrates the real benefits to be gained – perhaps motivating others to take the plunge.
It’s still too early to know what the long-term impacts of Attention Matters are going to be, or to predict exactly what we might discover about student attitudes and behaviors around multitasking. But I do foresee that as seismic change continues to occur in higher education, we will see more educators entering similar new territory – collaboratively creating focused, technologically delivered learning modules that live outside of traditional courses and use learning theory and cognitive science as the basis for design. And in our case, we may be able to add to our arsenal of strategies for getting students to become better stewards of their own attention.
In higher education circles, there is something of a feeding frenzy surrounding the issue of assessment. The federal government, due to release a proposed rating system later this fall, wants assessments to create ways to allow one to compare colleges and universities that provide “value”; accrediting organizations want assessments of student learning outcomes; state agencies want assessments to prove that tax dollars are being spent efficiently; institutions want internal assessments that they can use to demonstrate success to their own constituencies.
By far the main goal of this whirlwind of assessment is trying to determine whether an institution effectively delivers knowledge to its students, as though teaching and learning were like a commodity exchange. This view of education very much downplays the role of students in their own education, placing far too much responsibility on teachers and institutions, and overburdening everyone with a never-ending proliferation of paperwork and bureaucracy.
True learning requires a great deal of effort on the part of the learner. Much of this effort must come in the form of self-inquiry, that is, ongoing examination and reexamination of one’s beliefs and habits to determine which ones need to be revised or discarded. This sort of self-examination cannot be done by others, nor can the results of it be delivered by a teacher. It is work that a student must do for himself or herself.
Because of this, most of the work required in attaining what matters most in education is the responsibility of the student. A teacher can make suggestions, point out deficiencies, recommend methods, and model the behavior of someone who has mastered self-transformation. But no teacher can do the work of self-transformation for a student.
Current assessment models habitually and almost obsessively understate the responsibility of the student for his or her own learning, and, what is more consequential, overstate the responsibility of the teacher. Teachers are directed to provide clear written statements of observable learning outcomes; to design courses in which students have the opportunity to achieve those outcomes; to assess whether students achieve those outcomes; and to use the assessments of students to improve the courses so that attainment of the prescribed outcomes is enhanced. The standards do not entirely remove the student as an agent — the course provides the opportunity, while the student must achieve the outcomes. But the assessment procedures prescribe in advance the outcome for the student; the student can achieve nothing of significance, as far as assessment goes, except what the professor preordains.
This is a mechanical and illiberal exercise. If the student fails to attain the end, is it because the professor has not provided a sufficient opportunity? Or because, despite the opportunity being perfectly designed, the student, in his freedom, hasn’t acted? Or maybe the student attains the designed outcome due to her own ingenuity even when the opportunity is ill-designed. Or, heaven forbid, the student has after reflection rejected the outcome desired by the teacher in favor of another. The assessment procedure accurately measures the effectiveness of the curriculum precisely to the extent that the student’s personal freedom is discounted. To the extent that student’s freedom is acknowledged, the assessment procedure has to fail.
True learning belongs much more to the student than to the teacher. Even if the teacher spoon-feeds facts to the students, devises the best possible tests to determine whether students are retaining the facts, tries to fire them up with entertaining excitement, and exhibits perfectly in front of them the behavior of a self-actuated learner, the students will learn little or nothing important about the subject or about themselves if they do not undertake the difficult discipline of taking charge of their own growth. This being the case, obsessing about the responsibility of the teacher without paying at least as much attention to the responsibility of the student is hardly going to produce helpful assessments.
True learning is not about having the right answer, so measuring whether students have the right answers is at best incidental to the essential aims of education. True learning is about mastering the art of asking questions and seeking answers, and applying that mastery to your own life. Ultimately, it is about developing the power of self-transformation, the single most valuable ability one can have for meeting the demands of an ever-changing world. Meaningful assessment measures attainment in these areas, rather than in the areas most congenial to the economic metaphor.
How best to judge whether students have attained the sort of freedom that can be acquired by study? Demand that they undertake and successfully complete intellectual investigations on their own. The independence engendered by such projects empowers students to meet the challenges of life and work. It helps them shape lives worth living, arrived at through thoughtful exploration of the question: What kind of life do I want to make for myself?
What implications does this focus have for assessors? They should move away from easy assessments that miss the point to more difficult assessments that try to measure progress in self-transformation. The Gallup-Purdue Index Report "Great Jobs, Great Lives" found six crucial factors linking the college experience to success at work and overall well-being in the long term:
1. At least one teacher who made learning exciting.
2. Personal concern of teachers for students.
3. Finding a mentor
4. Working on a long-term project for at least one semester.
5. Opportunities to put classroom learning into practice through internships or jobs.
6. Rich extracurricular activities.
Assessors should thus turn all their ingenuity toward measuring the quality of the students’ learning environment, toward measuring students’ engagement with their teachers and their studies, and toward measuring activities in which students practice the freedom they have been working to develop in college. The results should be used to push back against easy assessments based on the categories of economics.
Higher education, on the other hand, would do well to repurpose most of the resources currently devoted to assessment. Use them instead to do away with large lecture classes — the very embodiment of education-as-commodity — so that students can have serious discussions with teachers, and teachers can practice the kind of continuous assessment that really matters.
Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College, in Annapolis.
A new report from the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health finds that the undergraduate major in the field has seen considerable growth. Nearly 50,000 undergraduates graduated with public health majors from 1992 to 2012, the report says. But half of those degrees were awarded from 2008 to 2012. During the period of 1992 to 2012, the share of undergraduate degrees in public health awarded to women increased as well, from 61 percent to 78 percent.
With college costs soaring and the job market for new grads sputtering, one trend is worth watching: more and more states are authorizing community colleges to grant bachelor’s degrees. Already, more than 20 states — now including California, which enrolls one out of every four of the nation's community college students — have authorized community colleges to grant these degrees.
Turf will be an issue as this trend continues, but there is a division of labor between community colleges and universities that makes sense. Community colleges can and should be encouraged to develop bachelor’s-degree programs in career and technical areas and to avoid the liberal arts degrees that are integral to the mission and education delivered by universities. In any case, turf isn't the bottom line in this coming shift. The bottom line is the bottom line: Do the technical and career-oriented degrees in which community colleges specialize pay off in the labor market?
Most community colleges have a good fix on the local labor market and can create relatively low-cost programs to fill local needs. When they follow this course with career-oriented training, there is plenty of empirical evidence that community colleges can produce graduates who earn enough to put them in the middle class and who indeed often earn more than bachelor’s graduates.
This evidence can be found in studies by College Measures, which have repeatedly demonstrated that graduates with technical associate degrees, on average, outearn graduates with bachelor’s degrees (see here or the most recent report on Tennessee). In some specialties, the gap can exceed $10,000.
Most current data on the experience of community college graduates in the labor market covers the wages of students earning associate degrees, not bachelor’s degrees. But data from Florida suggest that students earning bachelor’s degrees from community colleges also fare well.
Using data from 2012, the median wage of bachelor’s graduates from Florida’s universities one year after graduation was $33,400, far lower than the median wage ($41,000) of associate graduates of the state's community colleges.
One of the most common complaints about comparing early-career earnings is that even if graduates with associate degrees earn more than bachelor’s graduates early on, the rate at which bachelor’s graduates’ earnings increase is higher -- so that the advantage quickly disappears. There is truth to this, but five years after graduation, associate-degree holders have median earnings that are still higher than bachelor’s graduates ($47,000 versus $44,000). What’s more, the median household income in Florida is $47,309 and the median per capita income is $26,451. In short, the wages of associate-degree holders put them squarely in the middle class.
The lower wages of bachelor’s graduates result in part from the fact that universities offer a full gamut of bachelor’s degrees, including many liberal arts programs whose graduates don't earn much, especially immediately after graduation. The narrowing gap over time most likely reflects the earnings increases of the many university graduates with degrees in these low-wage fields, as they finally get to launch adult lives.
While data from Florida -- where community colleges have been granting bachelor’s degrees for years -- show associate graduates holding their own against bachelor’s graduates, the data also show that community college bachelor’s degrees are well received in the labor market.
Because Florida’s community colleges only offer degrees in a limited number of fields, it’s hard to directly compare the wages earned by graduates with bachelor’s degrees from community colleges to those of university graduates in a large number of fields. Where we can make these comparisons, the data reflect well on bachelor’s degrees earned at community colleges.
Looking at three large programs of study where comparisons are possible, data show that community college bachelor’s graduates with degrees in business administration one year after graduation had median earnings of $39,000. That’s $3,000 more than the median earnings of university graduates in the same field. Community college graduates with bachelor’s degrees in registered nursing earned $61,000, which outpaced that of university nursing graduates by $10,000. And community college bachelor’s graduates with elementary education and teaching degrees out earned university graduates by several hundred dollars: $37,500 to $37,000.
Few programs available at both community colleges and universities enroll enough students to make reporting long-term wage data possible, but elementary education and teaching is an exception. Five years after completion, community college graduates in these disciplines earned $40,200, compared to university graduates at $39,400. All these data are available here.
In short, bachelor’s graduates from community colleges are doing as well as their peers with university degrees, at least in Florida. And community college graduates usually paid far less for their education.
The United States has had a long and mostly unhappy history with career and technical education. Yet, the best programs in community colleges build on the best aspects of this training: figuring out what local labor markets need and training students at relatively low cost for those jobs. As long as they focus on this part of their mission, we should applaud the expansion of these institutions’ authority from granting certificates and associate degrees to include bachelor’s degrees.
Meanwhile, community colleges should leave philosophy, history and dance to universities committed to the liberal arts. Instead, community colleges should focus on training people for opportunities to enter the labor market with good skills that put them in the middle class. With their higher wages, these community college graduates can order their Starbucks coffees from baristas with fancy philosophy degrees.
Mark Schneider is vice president for the American Institutes for Research and a former commissioner of education statistics at the U.S. Department of Education.