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6 ways to grab (and keep) your students' attention

6 ways to grab (and keep) your students’ attention

5 min read
  • The science of learning

Pay attention!

All educators say it at some stage. Watching students zone out, check their phones discretely – or not so discretely – and chat to their friend can be extremely frustrating and demotivating. So why won’t your students always pay attention?    

In an ideal world, your students would listen to you with a singular focus, absorbing all the information you throw at them. In the real world…not so much.

There’s nothing unusual about students losing focus according to their mood or motivation levels. It’s bound to happen at some point in the lesson no matter what you do. But there are things you can do to stop it from happening so frequently…

What the research says

Although for many years, psychologists claimed that a student’s attention span ranged between 10-20 minutes, more recent research shows that lapses in attention occur more frequently. 

One research study used clickers as a way for students to self-report lapses in attention. This is because it is often difficult to observe if someone isn’t paying attention, based upon their facial expressions alone.

What the researchers found was that students reported lapses in attention as early as 30 seconds into a class and again approximately 4.5 minutes later. As the lesson went on, these lapses became briefer, with most students reporting that their attention would lapse for 1-2 minutes before they would refocus on the task at hand. 

Although lapses in students’ attention will likely occur no matter what you do, there are strategies you can apply in your classroom to limit how often your students lose focus. Mind wandering has been linked to poor academic performance as it disrupts working memory, so it’s particularly important to find ways to overcome it.

Effective learning starts with the ability to focus on the right thing at the right time. We can help your student with that.

How do I apply this to the classroom?

Motivate your students

One research study showed that when students were given an explanation as to why the lesson would be useful to them, they were more engaged in the lesson, more motivated, and learnt more overall.

Essentially, students need to be motivated to pay attention. If they don’t understand why the lesson will be important to them in the future, then be prepared for your students shutting down. One way you can do this is by suggesting how this information can be useful in day-to-day life at the beginning of the lesson or link abstract concepts to real-life scenarios.

Encourage reflection

Research shows that reflection is a valuable tool that enhances overall understanding and learning of a topic. This is because it allows students to make sense of what they’ve learnt and link it to other areas in the syllabus. By telling students they need to reflect on the material they’re learning, you’ll encourage them to pay closer attention. 

There are several ways of encouraging reflection in class:

  • As students leave the class, ask them to tell you one thing they learnt that day.
  • Have students write a brief 150-word reflective piece on why the topic is important.
  • Have group tasks as this allows for peer reflection and enhances self-awareness. 

Have a warm-up task

Be it in the morning when students walk into your class like zombies or the afternoon when they’re buzzing with energy as the school day is almost over, it’s often good to start a lesson with a warm-up task.

For example you could ask pre-questions, which is when you ask students questions before they learn the relevant material. Research shows that students who were asked pre-questions not only learnt more about those topics but remembered the rest of the lesson better as well. 

Slow down

As a teacher, you often find yourself racing against the clock to cover all the syllabus content you need to in a single lesson. However, it may be more beneficial for your student’s attention and overall learning if you slow it down and only focus on what they should know.

This can be explained by Cognitive Load Theory, which can be summarised into 3 key stages:

  1. Working memory, which is where we initially hold new information, is unfortunately quite small. 
  2. For learning to take place, information needs to be transferred to long-term memory, which is really large. 
  3. Although this sounds simple enough, there is a funnel between the two. Information that doesn’t make it across is ultimately lost and forgotten. 

This transfer of working memory needs time to work. So, if you’re constantly bombarding your students with new information, they may remember the wrong stuff or get completely overwhelmed and shut down. One way to overcome this is by creating psychologically smartlessons. Alternatively, you can use the 10:2 method: for every 10 minutes of instruction, students can have 2 minutes to quietly process and reflect. 

Peer teaching

Research shows that, when students are expected to teach syllabus content to someone else in the class, they remember more of the material and perform 12% better on a test. This is because students put in more effort into learning the subject and paying attention in class when they think they have to teach someone else. 

Keep the classroom tidy

Research shows that primary school students who learnt in highly decorated classrooms spent more time off-task compared to students in the minimally decorated classroom, resulting in less learning taking place. This is not to say that classrooms should have blank, empty walls. Instead, limit the number of displays up and even simplify your PowerPoints.

The science behind this is that working in a cluttered environment can affect students’ ability to remain focused. This is because we process our cluttered environment unconsciously which takes up some of our brain’s attention. Consequently, when students combine the cluttered classroom environment with tasks that need their attention – like learning new content– they compete with each other in their brain’s cognitive load.

Final thoughts

If students are exposed to the same environment, again and again, they’re going to get complacent. What happens when students get bored? They stop paying attention.

As a teacher, it’s frustrating to see your students disengaged with the class material. However, by implementing these strategies into your teaching style and recognising that your students are going to have brief lapses of attention at some stage, you can plan accordingly.

For more tips on how better engage with your students in the classroom, check out our blogs on how to use scaffolding in your lessons, and how visualisers can improve learning.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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