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The Focused Classroom

Minimizing distraction in a frenetic age.

February 24, 2017

Anne Guarnera is a doctoral candidate in Spanish at the University of Virginia. You can find her discussing teaching and learning on Twitter as @aguarnera and learn more about her work on her website.




How many notifications do you have waiting for you on your phone?


As I write this, I count 14 text messages, seven notifications on Facebook messenger, four new e-mails (even though I just checked a half hour ago) and countless blog posts, New York Times articles, and Instagram photos to review. Although I’m not a particularly avid social media user, I still find myself experiencing periodic bouts of “Distraction Sickness,” which are usually exacerbated by a writing deadline. Just in case you need some more evidence, consider this: since I started writing this article (all three sentences of it), I have checked Facebook four times.


As Andrew Sullivan argues in his excellent article for New York Magazine, social media has substantially changed how we interact with the world and each other. While it certainly has its uses—serving as an accessible platform for our research, helping grad students to establish their professional networks—social media’s constant interruptions and task-switching nature can have a negative trickle-down effect on our classrooms. Some educators who have realized this (and there’s research to back it up) have banned screens from their classrooms. But that’s not the only way to combat the effects of social media’s influence on our thinking and relationships.


If you find that you—or your students—are distracted and stressed out, and tempted to check your phones at every silence, consider these three ways to bring focus back into your classroom:


1. Give each lesson plan a measurable objective—and share that with students at the beginning of class. This is a strategy of teaching by design, and it’s a good one. Sharing your learning objective(s) with students can help them focus on the lesson’s principal task and measure their progress during your class meeting. Remember that your learning objectives should be student-focused (not content-focused), written in plain language, and measurable. Here are a few good examples:

  • By the end of today’s class, students will be able to conjugate the verb ÊTRE in the subjunctive and use it correctly in full sentences.
  • By the end of today’s class, students will be able to identify at least three rhetorical devices that Nicolás Guillén uses in his poem “El apellido” and explain how those devices contribute to the poem’s effect.
  • Upon completion of this lab, students will be able to identify the skeletal features that differentiate species in the hominin fossil record.


If you’ve never written a learning objective before, or would like to fine-tune those that you already have, this tutorial from Arizona State is useful.


2. Incorporate predictable transition activities into your lesson plans. Well-planned activities undertaken at the beginning of the class period can help your students transition from their prior engagements and get in the right mindset for your lesson. I like to use an opening activity that either a) reviews information from our previous class session or b) previews the skill or discussion that we’ll be undertaking that day. I also like to mix up the format of our opening activities with each class session. Here are some ideas of good transition activities for the start of class:

  • A three-question reading quiz (multiple choice, short answer, or other)
  • A reflective writing prompt that draws on assigned reading or the activities conducted in the previous class session
  • A class poll, followed by a brief discussion, on a subject related to the day’s lesson


The end of the class period is another great time to focus students’ attention, since it is natural to use this time for review. Some ways to do that include:

  • A three- to five-question quiz on the subject covered that day (make sure to review the correct answers so that students can measure their understanding/mastery)
  • Ask students to write down any remaining questions that they have about the material/skills covered. Have them hand these in and then respond to them at the start of the next class period.
  • Ask students to journal about how today’s class discussion relates to other subjects/themes covered in your class so far.


Need more ideas? Here’s an even longer list of activities, many of which can be repurposed to function as opening or closing activities.


3. Include mindfulness activities when appropriate. Contemplative pedagogy is gaining traction as a practical response to the fast pace of our culture, and research suggests that it can make a significant impact on your students’ learning success. Incorporating meditative practices not only improves students’ academic performance, but it also helps with stress management. Carving out space for students to journal reflectively about what they are learning in the course, to contemplate a piece of art, or to meditate on a brief excerpt of text can all be pedagogically meaningful ways to bring mindfulness into the classroom. If you’re in the sciences, perhaps you could have students visualize their lab assignments, walking themselves through each step and jotting down any questions that this process might raise (perhaps preventing some errors in the process!).


If you’re interested in learning more about contemplative practice in the classroom, Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching has compiled an excellent collection of sources to explore. You could also dive deep with this book on contemplatives practices in higher education.


What are your favorite ways to help students (and yourself) maintain focus in the classroom? Have you ever tried any of these techniques?


[Image provided by Flickr user Sebastien Wiertz and used under a Creative Commons license]

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Anne Guarnera

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