Social Sciences / Education

Essay calls for professors to start teaching students about distraction and attention

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.

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Michelle Miller is professor of psychological sciences at Northern Arizona University and author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology (Harvard University Press).


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Essay on when academics should go beyond just sharing their research findings

Is it appropriate for academics to cross the boundary between conducting research and engaging in advocacy on the basis of their empirical findings? For the first time in my career, I have really begun grappling with this question. This summer marked the greatest amount of attention paid to any research project I have conducted. The Journal of Health Psychology published my project, titled “A Daily Diary Assessment of Female Weight Stigmatization.”

The study consisted of weeklong daily diary assessments of weight-stigma and discrimination experienced by overweight and obese women. Using well-established daily diary methods, our study showed that actual rates of weight stigmatization were likely much higher than had been previously documented in the literature. Further, this study showed that weight stigma was being perpetuated by individuals from virtually every area of life -- with our participants reporting, on average, over three incidents of stigma daily. Some events were quite visible, including the experience of a participant who reported being mooed at in a grocery store. Other events were more subtle, such as being offered unsolicited fashion advice for concealing weight.

Overall, our findings richly presented some of the lived experiences of overweight women and I felt the paper would make a nice scientific contribution to the literature. Not surprisingly, the academic response to this piece has been slow, but it is steady and is heading in promising directions. At this point, the traditional scholar would be content. The research had been published and other scientists were taking interest. Yet I still had a deeply nagging sense that there was more I should be doing with these data. After all, I began my career in psychology with the desire to help people, and that is exactly what I intended to do. So, with input from others, I took the big step of pitching the story to the news media. I was excited about my first real opportunity to reach out to the public on this issue.

What I was not at all prepared for was the public response to this study once it was publicized. Within days of releasing it, reporters from around the globe, perhaps sensing the controversial nature of the study or the topic of obesity, began to send their interview requests. Since then, numerous stories have been written, including pieces in New York Magazine, Salon, The London Daily Mail and Cosmopolitan, each with slightly different takes on the my main research messages that weight stigma is widely prevalent and that it is detrimental to the people who experience it.

With each additional published story, the public onslaught of comments via web postings, Twitter, and Facebook grew. I am not kidding when I say that tens of thousands of people have chimed in to add their two cents about the study and about the topic of obesity generally. Comments have ranged from encouraging personal anecdotes to vitriolic bashing of obese people and those who support them.

Interestingly, a subset of these responses have also come from fellow academics who have lobbed negative comments about my professional skills as a social scientist for so “blatantly” using my research for advocacy purposes. Apparently, for at least one scholar, my role as an advocate was in direct conflict with my role as a scientist and I was therefore doing a disservice to the field. (One such negative response was to an editorial I wrote for The Providence Journal. Though I suspect his commentary was motivated by more than a desire to protect the integrity of science, my own personal internal questions about my roles as a scientist and an advocate began circulating.)

Had I overstepped my bounds as a scientist? Should I have been content to stay within the relative safety of my research and scholarly publications, or, should I push ahead into the public sphere and continue using knowledge to advocate for the marginalized in society? On one hand, my study and the years of preparation leading up to it were sufficient for publication in a respectable peer-reviewed scientific journal, but on the other I was chastised by some for violating my role as a scientist by attempting to use these data to publicly highlight the mistreatment of overweight and obese individuals.

Like many academics devoted to teaching and research, I tend to bring my research into the classroom for use as an educational tool. My students were already aware of my research, so I was interested in what their response would be to this rapidly unfolding saga. On an impromptu basis, I posed the issue to them.

What emerged from this discussion was both surprising and energizing. They openly shared their personal views about obesity (positive or otherwise). Students swapped stories about blatant instances of disrespect that had been encountered and they debated why this type of research (and advocacy) was important to academic psychology and society at large. It was an invigorating classroom experience and one in which I suspect my students and I took much more away than we would have with the originally scheduled topic. In much the same way as was occurring in online forums, my students were engaging with and debating the issues of obesity and weight stigma.

In the ensuing days, I have increasingly questioned the seemingly artificial boundaries placed between the roles of academic researcher and advocate. I am left wondering how many would-be champions of great ideas in the academic realm remain silent in the public domain because of the perceived conflicts between the roles of researcher and advocate. For me, stepping out into the public sphere has contributed to an enhanced sense of purpose in what I do as a researcher.

The publicity, commentary, and discussions -- about my research and about obesity more generally -- have accomplished what I hoped they would by opening up dialogue on this important issue. Whether an academic chooses to focus solely on their research or to extend their role to include research-based advocacy is a personal choice. However, as academics, we have been bestowed with the privilege and the obligation to pursue and use scientific knowledge for the betterment of the world. I truly believe that meeting these obligations does not end with the publication of findings in an academic journal.


Jason D. Seacat is associate professor of psychology at Western New England University.

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