For Christmas one year, my wife bought us tickets to the Boston symphony. On a pre-pandemic January evening we settled into our seats. As the conductor guided us through the evening’s program, I began to reflect on how deliberately he had worked to capture — and maintain — our attention, and what college professors could learn from his choices.
First came a quick modern piece. After a short break, we heard a 20-minute work from a lesser-known classical composer, with variations of tempo and theme in each of its five movements. Finally, after a longer intermission, the orchestra launched into Antonín Dvorak’s famous 41-minute symphony, “From the New World.” One of its most striking features is how Dvorak built the piece from very simple melodies but subjected them to several types of variation: They are passed around from instrument to instrument, they speed up and slow down, they start in a familiar place but end somewhere different. Catchy melodies can easily bore listeners after 30 minutes, so the shifts and variety play an essential role in sustaining our attention.
Likewise in the college classroom — or any classroom, for that matter — change and variety play an essential role in maintaining students’ attention.
In this third installment of a series on distraction and attention in education — based on my new book, Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It — I want to draw inspiration from creative artists who have long counted it as one of their tasks to keep audiences attentive to works that stretch over long periods of time. Directors and playwrights, conductors and composers, all recognize the limited attention span of an audience, which is why they structure the work itself and its performance in particular ways.
Plays unfold in acts and scenes, with short transitions between these segments, and usually at least one longer intermission. Classical-music concerts are parceled into three or four different performances, with an intermission, and symphonies are divided into movements. The changes and transitions are even more regular at modern rock or jazz concerts, where new songs are launched every four, five, or 10 minutes.
The classroom is one of the only places where we expect humans in seats to maintain their attention through an extended, uninterrupted performance of an hour or more. I suspect that’s the case because we (the teachers) are able to keep ourselves fully engaged during the class period: We’re managing our slides, thinking about the next discussion question, writing on the board, and more. It’s all very engaging — for us — but not necessarily for our students.
Some of you might be thinking, Well, I use active-learning strategies in my classroom, so maintaining students’ attention is less of a concern than if I was just lecturing the whole time. But anyone who has spent 75 minutes trying to oversee a class discussion knows better. It doesn’t matter what teaching technique you are using — at some point in every class period, attention will flag. That’s how attention works: It rises, falters, and renews.
Learning is hard, and so is attention. And yet we have only a short amount of time to spend with students. If we want to help students stay attentive throughout a class period, we have to think like artists, conductors and directors, recognizing that students need changes of scene, shifts in format, and opportunities to pause and catch their cognitive breath.
Here are my three favorite lessons for the classroom, drawn from the ways the creative professions keep an audience’s attention. They are easily applicable to any classroom, physical or virtual.
Strategy 1: Structure and signpost. Envision sitting down at a conference lecture that has a start time listed but no end time. The speaker begins talking about a mix of texts but gives you no information about how many will be considered, and no sense of the shape of the talk. It unfolds amorphously and continuously. How long would your attention last in that scenario? How long before most of your attention would be consumed with questions like: How does this part relate to the last one? What’s the main point here? How much longer will this last?
During the months I spent writing my book, Distracted, I observed many college courses that unfolded in just that way — except there was a stated end point. Yet the 50- or 75-minute class period ambled along without any clearly visible plan. Even as a faculty observer, who probably had a better view of the purpose of the pedagogical strategies than the students, I often found myself wondering how the faculty member’s current activity or point related to the last one, and whether it was setting us up for something that would come next.
“Structure and signpost” is a two-fold strategy:
- Have a plan.
- Show it to the students.
Just as conductors and composers present the audience with a program that sets our expectations and guides us through the experience, instructors should explain the plan for a class session at the outset. Segment off a small slice of the whiteboard and write the plan there, put it in the chat at the start of the Zoom session, or put it on a slide to start class. It doesn’t have to be incredibly detailed, and of course it can be flexible. But it should be there, spelled out for all students.
Once you’ve sketched out the structure, provide signposts throughout the session to indicate where the class is at, and help recapture students’ attention when it has drifted. Occasional references to the plan — “We have one more theory to consider, and then I’ll ask you to write a response to all three of them” — will keep listeners attuned and ready.
Strategy 2: Inspiration from index cards. Michele Lemons, an associate professor of biology at my college, helped run a workshop a few years ago for the teaching center I direct. It was patterned after one she herself had attended, offered by Kimberly D. Tanner, a professor of biology at San Francisco
State University, and based on an article Tanner wrote about the importance of sequencing in teaching.
The focus of Michele’s workshop on our campus: What order of activities in the classroom best supports student learning?
Handing out index cards to the faculty members, she asked us to write down the various teaching techniques we used in our classrooms. My dozen or so cards included phrases like “mini-lecture,” “writing exercise,” “group worksheet,” “video clip,” and more. Then she encouraged us to envision a class period, and start using the cards to play around with different sequences of activities for that session. It was fascinating to shuffle the cards around and imagine how the same course material could unfold in radically different ways.
Try this easy exercise yourself with a group of colleagues, with a special focus on attention. What kinds of activities tend to especially exhaust the attention of your students? Which ones tend to energize and awaken students? How can you sequence these two kinds of activities in order to sustain attention throughout the period?
You don’t have to change activities manically — two or three shifts in format or activity over the course of a class period might well be enough.
Strategy 3: Pentecostal pedagogy. No matter how well you plan class time, your students’ attention is still likely to ebb and flow. Don’t let that discourage you. It’s normal and expected. As I argued in the first column in this series, distraction comes naturally and easily to the human brain, so you should never expect a rapt audience of attentive minds in every minute of class.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do what you can to support students in their efforts to pay attention. Christopher Emdin, the author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’All Too, recommends that teachers take a lesson in this respect from the preachers at Black churches who have an effective back-pocket strategy to revitalize the attention of their congregations when it begins to flag. They call out “Can I get an ‘amen’?” a few times, the congregation roars back, and suddenly everyone is back in the room.
Find your own version of that callout. If I’m teaching a slate of poems in my British-literature course on a given day, and I see attention beginning to falter, one of my favorite things to do is ask everyone to put down their books and notebooks, close up their laptops, and listen to me read a poem aloud. In a writing class I might throw out a discussion question and, instead of asking for raised hands, ask students to write down their responses.
Such strategies have always been part of my teaching, but since I began paying more attention to attention, I’ve become more deliberate about using them when I need them.
I suspect most of us have attention-renewal strategies that we use, both in planned ways and on the spur of the moment when class isn’t going as well as we’d hoped it would. It may be that you just need to be more deliberate about their deployment. Before you walk into any class, have ready a few attention-renewal options: a quick writing assignment, a poll, a paired discussion, a stretch, a video clip, an image. You might not need them, but they’re there just in case.
All three of these suggestions really come down to structure: having a clear structure for class sessions, making it visible to students, and having some room for flexibility along the way. These are core strategies for the support of attention, but — as Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy have argued in their essay on inclusive teaching — they are also essential for the creation of an inclusive teaching environment. A structured class period benefits all learners, but may benefit your traditionally underrepresented students the most.
Don’t be the pedagogical equivalent of the conference speaker who drafts the talk on the plane, doesn’t rehearse it, and drones on without a break. Put the kind of structure on your class that you appreciate in the talks you attend, and that will support the attention of all students.