Teaching Today

Capturing Students’ Attention in Lectures

Christine Harrington and Todd Zakrajsek share successful strategies that often take only a few minutes of class time.

October 3, 2017
 
 

While sitting in a lecture, a student’s attention may shift in many ways -- daydreaming, looking out a window at a beautiful day, or searching a website on a laptop or mobile device.

With everything that is happening in the world, it is easy for students to become distracted during class.

Yet it is important to establish a classroom culture where learning is the focus and such distractions are kept to a minimum. To accomplish that challenging task, we as professors need to emphasize the importance of a learning-focused classroom culture on the first day and maintain that environment throughout the semester by addressing behaviors that can have a negative impact on learning.

In the course of our teaching over the years, we’ve identified the following strategies to accomplish those goals – and they often take only a few minutes of class time.

Create a classroom culture focused on learning. Actions before the semester even begins can have a significant impact on how much students pay attention and learn in the class. A first step is to develop a good rapport with students. Students are more likely to engage in learning-focused behaviors when they respect their professors and believe they care about their learning. A simple action like sending out a welcome e-mail before the start of the semester can be a productive way to begin a positive relationship with your students.

Then, on the first day, it’s important to develop a learning-focused culture in the classroom.  You should clearly communicate policies that promote learning and minimize distraction, such as not using cell phones or other technology for non-learning purposes. And how you communicate those policies also matters. Syllabi that focus on negative behaviors and their consequences can send the message that you are expecting students to engage in inappropriate behaviors, which may not help you establish a good rapport with them. Instead, make a positive statement about how much you value a learning-focused environment and how you take your role in creating and maintaining this type of environment seriously. Providing students with a rationale for the policies can promote a respectful relationship while also increasing the likelihood that they will follow those policies.

Deal with off-task behaviors when they occur. Despites such efforts, some students may still engage in behaviors that distract others. A powerful, nonverbal way to address that is to walk closer to the student who is behaving off-task, making eye contact. Another strategy is to use the student’s name in the context of the lecture. That is not the same as calling students out for their behavior. Instead, if John is off task, you might say something such as, “When John shared his experience with volunteering at his local elementary school, the scenario he described was a good example of operant conditioning.”

If the nonverbal and name-dropping approaches don’t work, you may have to have individual conversations with students outside of class in which you ask them to stop engaging in disruptive classroom behavior.

Discuss the detrimental effects of multitasking. Most students do not realize what a problem multitasking can be in the classroom. But using phones, tablets and computers for social purposes is a normal activity for most of us, and it can be challenging for students

to turn off their devices when entering a classroom. Review with them the research on how important attention is to learning and how distractions such as cell phones and laptops can have detrimental impacts on their success and the success of their classmates. Engaging students in activities or discussions about studies such as these at the start of the semester can help them understand the importance of being on task and focused during a lecture. A few minutes of class time can have a long-lasting, positive impact on the learning experience for all your students.

Identify the big ideas. Prior to each lecture, identify the three most important concepts and then develop a plan to emphasize those points. One strategy is to write the big ideas on the board or put them in a PowerPoint slide so students know to look out for them during the lecture.

Some faculty members might worry that by identifying just a few big ideas, they may be minimizing the importance of other content. Remember, however, that when students learn the important points, it will be easier for them to take in and digest the details because you’ve created an organizational structure for the material. Providing students with assistance in determining the most vital points will lead to more, not less, learning in the long run.

During the lecture, we can inform students why we are using this strategy and how knowing the big ideas will serve as a springboard for them to take in more detailed information during the lecture and reading. In other words, we can help them understand that the big ideas are a great start to learning the course content, but they are expected to dive much deeper into it and learn more specific material as well.

One of the simplest strategies you can use to emphasize what is important is to simply tell them what is important. Some faculty members think it is the student’s responsibility to decipher that, but it can be a difficult task for novice learners. Plus, why does it have to be a mystery? By making statements such as “This is important!” we can capture the attention of our students and help them know which topics demand more study time and energy. As students learn more about the discipline, they will be better equipped to identify the key concepts without as much support.

Use a hook or a cue. Once you’ve identified the big ideas, you’ll want to think about how to grab students’ attention. You might use a 90-second activity, or hook, based on content. Or you can establish a cue that you use consistently to emphasize the importance of a concept. Some examples of hooks are an interesting image, question, story or statistic that you communicate in a passionate way. Some examples of cues include straightforward language such as, “This is important” or “This is one of the big ideas” and making a visual gesture, using silence or a dramatic pause, or standing in a certain location in the room. In the beginning of the semester, you can explicitly describe such cues with your students, but as the semester progresses, this verbal explanation will no longer be necessary.

Be passionate. Showing your passion about a subject matter is an excellent way to capture attention. Students respond positively to professors who are excited about the course content, and your enthusiasm about a topic can certainly communicate importance. Although you may naturally talk louder about content when you believe it is particularly exciting or important, consider developing an intentional plan to use your voice to draw attention to the crucial points. Talking more loudly or more softly will often capture the attention of your students. When a professor speaks with a monotone voice that doesn’t change, students will probably get lost and have significant difficulty determining which concepts matter most.

Use gestures or symbols. You can use them a couple of different ways to emphasize importance. For instance, you can explain to students that you will wave your hands above your head before presenting the big ideas. In essence, that serves as a retrieval cue, making it easier for students to extract information from long-term memory when it is needed. Another related strategy is the use of symbols.  A star next to a concept would be one example. You can also use symbols consistently when discussing a specific concept. For example, if your goal is to help students in an introductory psychology course to understand the many ways cognition applies to different theories, a ♦ symbol might be used. That symbol will remind students that it is a cognitive application of a given theory. Think about how well we -- and our students -- know the simple icons on our smart phones. Images are powerful learning tools.

Teach students how to read and highlight effectively. When students read the textbook before class, they can be better positioned to differentiate between the important and less important content in a lecture. But that is only the case if the students understand what they read in the textbook, and unfortunately, they often fail to report a high level of comprehension after reading a textbook chapter. One of students’ most widely used strategies while reading is highlighting parts of the text, but most students don’t do that effectively. By teaching them a few basic tips, we can help them extract key points from both the text and the lecture.

One helpful approach is the 3R or read-recite-review method. When using it, students should first identify a manageable section of the chapter to read. After reading it, they should close the book and make notes on that section, using their own words to summarize what they learned rather than simply copying text from the book. Finally, students should reread the section and fill in their notes with any missing content. Students can use their highlighters because they now possess some knowledge on the content and will be better able to identify the most important points.

Encouraging students to only highlight one or two sentences from each paragraph or section also forces them to actively think about the content, determining what is most important. Teaching students some of these simple, yet powerful, reading strategies can help them learn course content.

Students often report that lectures are boring and that it is difficult to learn from them. That often happens because an expert, the professor, is attempting to inform novices, the students, and at times, novices do not understand the major point of the lecture and miss key information along the way. Learners in such situations have a difficult time determining what they should attend to at any given time and as a result get frustrated and lose interest. When you help them to better process the information, they will maintain focus and learn more.

Bio

Christine Harrington is executive director of the New Jersey Center for Student Success at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. She is the author of Student Success in College: Doing What Works! (Cengage Learning, 2016). Todd Zakrajsek is an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the former executive director for the Center for Faculty Excellence at the university. This article has been adapted from Dynamic Lecturing: Research Based Strategies to Enhance Lecture Effectiveness, recently published by Stylus Publishing.

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