Brain Matters

Four Ways to Keep Students' Attention

Creating classroom experiences that grab and hold students' interest is not only good teaching, it's good science, writes Karen Costa.

July 26, 2016

Want to learn the art of attention from an expert? Visit a kindergarten classroom. Clap-clap-clapclapclap! The sharp, intentional and unexpected rhythm rang out through the library while I was volunteering with my son’s class. And then, a retort from the now-quiet children. Clap-clap-clapclapclap! The children’s eyes settled on their teacher; the jubilant conversations had ceased. Attention was ready to be paid.

Consider this common expression: Pay attention. Currency is exchanged. There is an offering (our teaching) and a cost (students must divert their attention from other sources). Reflecting on both sides of this equation in the context of what science knows and what our teaching does can help us to improve the classroom experience for teachers and students.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules, reminds us of the stakes: the greater the attention that is paid, the more we learn. The neural mechanisms that influence attention are complex; Medina states that our attention is influenced by a combination of memory, interest and awareness. Our prior experiences (and how we remember them) affect attention. Whether or not we define something as aligned with one of our interests will also impact if the brain latches on to the new information. Finally, if we are so focused on something else (a cell phone, perhaps) that we lack awareness that our teacher is calling our name, we aren’t able to give our attention where it’s due. Creating classroom experiences that grab and hold students’ attention and teaching students the connection between attention and learning is not only good teaching, it’s good science.

Medina offers four critical components to becoming an attention-savvy educator.

Emotions as Chemical Post-it Notes

Think of emotions as chemical Post-it notes, Medina says. Emotions paint an experience in fluorescent orange, making us more likely to notice and retain the information at hand. How? Emotions trigger a release of dopamine into our system, and dopamine improves our ability to remember. For example, you probably remember vivid details from your wedding day, the birth of your first child or defending your dissertation. But do you remember the day before or after those momentous events? Probably not. Now reflect on your classroom learning experiences; your most vivid memories are probably tied to happiness, excitement, shame or fear.

How can we intentionally incorporate emotions into our classrooms to increase attention? First, share your enthusiasm for your subject with your students. What made you fall in love with the study of psychology in the first place? Why do you believe that the humanities will save the world? How did you feel the first time you looked into a microscope? This is as important as the theoretical or practical content you’re about to teach them.

Next, tell stories. If you don’t have a story, find someone else’s online (TED talks are a great emotional resource). Draw students into the topic emotionally to attach a Post-it note to your instruction. Think that your subject matter prevents you from incorporating emotional stories into your teaching? Check out the work of the late Randy Pausch, a computer science professor who considered storytelling one of his most powerful teaching strategies.

Do the Why Work

Daniel Pink, an expert in motivation and the author of Drive, states that “why” is “the most underused word in the modern workplace.” Could we say the same of the modern classroom? Pink goes on to assert that people are “thirsting for context.” According to Medina, we can gain our students’ attention by quenching their thirst for why.

Much of this “why work” starts in the course development and lesson planning stages of teaching. Begin by answering this question in one sentence: What is the purpose of your course? Ideally, this will connect to the why of your program and the why of your institution. If you can’t articulate the answers to these questions, how can you expect your students to understand the big picture of their course, program, and college?

Concept mapping (or mind mapping) is an excellent next step. You can find a great free mind-mapping tool at Text 2 Mind Map. Draw your course. How do the concepts you’ll be teaching in week one connect to the overarching why of the course? How does week two connect to week one? If these connections aren’t there, build them or reconsider the value of including them in the first place. I’ve noticed teachers getting better at the what; many will place an agenda on the board at the start of a class or at the start of a new module in an online classroom. But for our brains, more important than the what is the why. Medina argues that brains are hierarchical and prefer to learn from the top down. He won a teaching award for designing 10-minute lectures that applied this model.

Medina also cites the work of John Bransford, emeritus endowed chair in learning sciences in the College of Education at the University of Washington, who argued that the difference between an expert and a novice is that an expert can explain connections between ideas, while a novice can only list the ideas. Step into your role as an expert. Don’t just tell -- teach.

Create a Device-Free Zone

When I was teaching in a land-based classroom, I used to allow laptops. It felt forward thinking to give students this option. I’ve since changed my mind. Brain science has confirmed that our brains cannot multitask. Each time we switch tasks, we have to restart that brain sequence. Medina estimates that multitasking takes 50 percent longer than focusing on one thing at a time. The recent findings on laptop use in classrooms support the idea that decreasing classroom distractions and limiting opportunities for students to attempt to multitask are valid teaching strategies.

I recently sat next to a young woman during a lecture where I was in a student role. Every 10 minutes, her phone buzzed. I would glance in her direction, pulled away from the teacher’s words. She didn’t flinch. I wondered to myself if we’ve entered a phase where we are so desensitized to our devices that vibrate is the new silent. I now have a personal habit of keeping my phone set to do not disturb unless I’m expecting an important call. I have a landline where I can be reached alternately. I get to choose when I turn my attention to my device, not the other way around.

Create distraction-free classrooms, but do so as a teacher, not a tyrant. In the first days of your course, share the research on distractions with your students. Talk to them about screen addiction and attention, and show them the value of focusing on their course instead of their device.

For online students, the stakes are even higher. If your online courses aren’t teaching students how to limit distractions while online, you are doing them a disservice. Teach students to turn off notifications and devices while working on their online courses. Again, do the why work here to show students the value of paying attention.

Rest and Digest

Does it seem like the number of course objectives associated with your course grows each term? Do you feel increasingly constrained by time? Many professors do. But beware of the urge to cram more content into your courses. Medina equates this to force-feeding and argues that brains need more time to digest. Because the brain is, as Medina explains, a “sequential processor,” it needs to fully process one idea before it can move on to the next. Simplify. Students will paradoxically learn more when you teach less.

Medina offers an outline for a typical 50-minute lecture-based class period. Break the class into five sections, because most people start to lose interest after 10 minutes. The first minute of each section should be spent on an emotional-meaning maker. Hook them. Writing teachers: you know the value of a great hook. Grab them with that first minute in order to hold them for the next nine when you can focus on details and explanation. Repeat.

Continue to do the why work throughout the lecture, bringing students back to the central purpose of the class so that their brains don’t have to switch tasks. Professors can swap out lecture segments with other strategies like individual journaling or small-group activities. The same overarching model of hook, big picture and details still applies.

By incorporating these rules into your teaching and your classrooms, you can begin to harness the power of attention. And remember, we are students, too. Reflecting on the role of attention in your own life can only serve to improve your ability to teach these concepts to your students.


Karen Costa is a Massachusetts-based adjunct instructor who teaches college success strategies to online students. Connect with her on Twitter @KarenRayCosta.


Back to Top