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:
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!
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.
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?
This post was written by Stephen A. Walsh.