Jim Lang

Professor at Assumption College

Distracted Minds: 3 Ways to Get Their Attention in Class

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Image: Tim Cook for The Chronicle

I’m one of those cranky fathers who bans cellphones at the dinner table, a rule my five children have (grudgingly) come to accept. Last spring, when even my two adult children were home and working remotely, our family dinners were one of the few bright spots in those dark times. Phones got put away — and kept away until plates were emptied and conversation lagged.

But those family dinners ended in the exact same way every night: One of us picked up a phone. Then everyone else did, too. All it took was one person to break away from the other humans at the table, and the rest of us followed suit.

That nightly experience drove home one of the most important lessons I learned during the two years I’ve spent doing research on attention and distraction in higher education: Attention is reciprocal. When I pay attention to you, you are more likely to pay attention to me. The same is true of distraction. The more distracted I am in my interactions with you, the less likely you are to give me your full attention.

This principle has obvious implications in the college classroom. As faculty members, we want our students’ attention in class: for ourselves, for the course material, and for one another. The reciprocal nature of attention means that the first step we should take, in seeking their attention and orienting it toward learning, is to pay better attention to them. That seems like an especially important practice now as students face significant challenges to their learning — not to mention their lives outside of the classroom — because of Covid-19.

This new series on attention and distraction in the classroom is drawn from my newly published bookDistracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Here in Part 2, I want to focus on three simple ways that faculty members can get students’ attention in our courses by giving them our full attention. Just as we can use our classroom discussions to model how to engage with ideas and treat others with respect, we can use the following practices to show them the value of attention in their learning and in the classroom.

Recognize their individuality. I’ve written before about the importance of having students share their strengths and values with you at the beginning of a semester, and I’ll start with that idea again here. It was first suggested to me in a conversation with Guadalupe I. Lozano, a mathematician at the University of Arizona. She pointed out (and argued in print) that faculty members usually start the semester viewing our students as lacking or missing something — i.e., specific knowledge or skills — that we will then help to provide through our teaching.

In other words, we view them through a deficit lens.

Of course students have deficits in their learning, but they also carry assets into our classrooms. They bring the knowledge and skills they have developed in their prior schooling, and that can contribute to our common learning. They bring their unique life stories and experiences, which can help provide new perspectives on familiar questions and challenges. Students from diverse cultures or countries, students from privilege and from poverty, students with mental-health challenges or who have experienced trauma — all of them have the potential to spur new learning in our courses, and all of them challenge us to be inclusive and creative in our pedagogy.

Try setting aside the deficit lens and instead giving their assets your attention. Invite students to tell you about their skills and strengths at the start of the semester, when you’re asking them about their major, hometown, extracurriculars. Asking them to tell you about the assets and values they are bringing into your class affirms you are interested in them both as students and as individuals.

In a brief, easy prompt, ask them to:

  • Tell you about an important value in their lives (give them an example from your own life to get them started).
  • Tell you about a unique perspective or life experience they will bring to the course material.
  • Describe their greatest academic strength. When I asked my students about this, I was floored by the pride they took in their academic accomplishments and talents — I felt like I knew something important about each of them, and I was excited to begin working with them.

Use their names regularly. Names have tremendous power to capture attention. How many times have you been drifting off in a classroom or other social context when you are snapped to life by someone speaking your name? Or how many times have you called on students by name and seen them jolt from a reverie? Scientists tell us that, from a young age, we respond with attention to the sound of our names.

Our names are also intertwined with our earliest formal learning. Kindergarten teachers like my wife, Anne, make extensive use of names in order to help children learn to read. Anne creates cards that contain large-print versions of each child’s name and displays them on a grid in her classroom. She encourages children first to recognize and write their own names and then to compare the letters and syllables in their own names with those of the other names on the grid. Our names are intimately tied to our earliest efforts to read and write.

If you want students to bring their attention to your classroom, you have to be willing to put in the work of learning and using their names. That practice not only invites their attention, but also affirms their importance. Learning and using names should always be done in small classes. Don’t just call on them by name. Refer to their contributions in class discussions by associating their good ideas with their names.

You may not be able to learn everyone’s names if you have one or more large classes, each with 50 or 100 students, or more. Instead, ask students to place table tents on their desks with their names, so you can call on them by name when they ask questions or when you are soliciting responses.

According to a 2017 study called “What’s in a Name?,” the simple act of using students’ names in a large course — even if you don’t have them memorized — can be enough to make them feel recognized as individuals. Instructors in a team-taught biology course with an enrollment of nearly 200 students had them use name tents. At the end of the semester, the students were asked to identify whether the instructor knew their names, and close to 80 percent reported that at least one of the instructors knew their name. When the instructors were actually asked to identify students by name through photographs, they could only correctly identify around 50 percent of them.

The researchers also asked students whether it mattered to them that the instructors knew their names, and more than 85 percent of them said it did. “I feel like I’m just a face in the crowd most of the time,” one student wrote, “even in classes where the teacher is really excited about teaching and helping students understand. Knowing my name makes me feel more noticed and welcome.”

One advantage of the Zoom classes that many of us are teaching right now is that the names are all right there on the screen. Soliciting or responding to student comments and questions by name will be sure to perk up the attention of your students, while it also sends a subtle signal about their value to the classroom community.

Speak to all corners of the room. This recommendation is one you likely will have to put on hold until next year, when (one hopes) we can return to our physical classrooms and practices. But I still want to include it here, because making good use of the full physical space of a classroom is one of the most straightforward ways to keep both professor and students attentive.

Doug Lemov, the author of Teach Like a Champion, argues that many classrooms seem to contain “an imaginary line that runs the length of the room, parallel to and about five feet in front of the board, usually about where the first student desks start.” Most teachers stay behind that line. It has the advantage of directing all eyes on you, just as the seats in a theater train all eyes on what’s happening on the stage. But it has the disadvantage of separating you from the students — enabling them to pursue digital and other distractions out of your sight while you lecture to a half-attentive audience.

The obvious solution here is to break that barrier. Make your movements around the room deliberate. Stand near different groups of students throughout the class period. Nothing will make a student snap to attention like finding the professor standing nearby.

That might sound a little creepy, but think of it instead as working deliberately to make sure you are giving your attention to the students in every corner of the space, just as actors move around the stage and speak lines toward different segments of the theater. Especially in large classes, students can feel like anonymous faces in the room. Join them in their space, and invite them into the learning community with your presence.

This recommendation obviously won’t apply to instructors with mobility limitations, or those who are teaching in a classroom that prevents easy movement around the room. If you are someone facing either of those challenges, and you have found other ways to make productive use of the physical space of the classroom, please jump on Twitter to share your good ideas with the rest of us.

“I give my attention to what I value,” writes the French cultural critic Yves Citton in The Ecology of Attention, “and I value what I give my attention to.”

Too often in the classroom we are giving our attention to our PowerPoint slides, our lecture notes, the textbook, or the ticking clock on the wall. What is most deserving of our attention in the classroom, of course, are the other human beings in our presence.


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