The Science of Student Attention

What’s the secret to great teaching? Well, there isn’t one – if there was one magic wand you could just wave, we’d have told you already! But one place to start could be with keeping your students’ attention. A recent study sheds new light on this important issue – it’s awfully tough, after all, to teach students effectively if they’re not paying attention to you in the first place.

Popular belief holds that students’ attention peaks in the first fifteen minutes or so of class, and then generally declines. This study, which tracked students’ eye gaze patterns during lectures, demonstrates that this is an oversimplification of a far more complex process.

So what do students pay attention to? The essential lesson is this: they pay attention to change. More specifically:

  1. Proximity to the instructor. This means you are not a prisoner of the podium, or the front of the table, or however your classroom is set up. Of course, you can’t be proximate to each student all the time – so move around! Change it up!

  2. Humor. You probably already knew that students typically pay attention to jokes. But there’s a lot more behind that surface observation: laughter in the classroom can make students more comfortable, lower their affective filter, encourage intellectual risk-taking, decrease anxiety, establish a more productive student-teacher relationship (and yes, I could go on). As Billie Hara points out, you don’t need to be a gifted comedian to use humor effectively in the classroom.(Indeed, it’s probably better if you’re not.) It’s not about your authority, it’s about your students’ learning. Of course, there are limits of taste. Here are some quick tips from our friends at the Center for Teaching Excellence at SUNY Plattsburgh.

  3. Variety. Students pay more attention when you don’t just read from your PowerPoint. More broadly, don’t be afraid to change up the interaction in the classroom. If you’re lecturing, why not change it up and ask your students some questions while you’re presenting the information? If you’ve got a discussion seminar, why not design some activities for students to talk to each other instead of just answering your questions for the duration of the class?

I started by saying there is no one secret to great teaching, and there aren’t three either. But with your students paying attention, you’re well on the way.

This post was written by Stephen A. Walsh.

3 thoughts on “The Science of Student Attention

  1. In my view the experience of the teacher and the experiences they have gained in their life are important factors. A good teacher needs to be able to impart his knowledge in different ways. An example would be a flying instructor has to be able to teach the same sequence three or four ways to be effective. It is a fascinating area to study.
    Neil

  2. I am an online tutor and I always had problem in making online session interesting. I read this article and realized that I was always missing humor part when I teach my students. Thanks you so much for sharing such a nice and informative article!

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