December 4th, 2009

A New Look at Student Attention Spans


Have you heard that advice about chunking content in 10- to 15-minute blocks because that’s about as long as students can attend to material in class? It’s a widely touted statistic and given the behaviors indicative of inattentiveness observed in class, most faculty haven’t questioned it. But Karen Wilson and James H. Korn did. They got to wondering how researchers made that determination. “What was the dependent measure, and how did researchers measure attention during a lecture without influencing the lecture itself as well as students’ attention?” (p. 85)

They began by tracking down the sources, starting with some well-known books that include this attention span statistic. What they found was quite surprising: “It turns out that the research concerned attention only indirectly or not at all and that several frequently cited sources were not empirical studies, but secondary sources or personal observations.” (p. 87)

For example, some of the research cited as documenting the statistic looked at how many notes students took throughout a lecture—assuming that fewer notes meant lower levels of attentiveness. But the most recent study in this group found that although the amount of notes did decline across the period, student retention of the material did not.

A number of authors report on the decline in attention based on observation—in some cases, their own, and in others, that of independent judges. In the best of these studies, observers noted a low level of attentiveness at the beginning of the lecture and again sometime between 10 and 18 minutes into the lecture. However, this study suffers from several significant methodological flaws.

Finally, some researchers looked at retention of the material, assuming that if retention is low, students are not paying attention. This research does document that students do not retain a lot of lecture material, between 40 percent and 46 percent in one study. They were tested on content recall immediately after listening to and taking notes on a lecture. But, surprisingly, retention of content was pretty much stable across lecture periods of different lengths.

None of this says that students listen well in class. For most of us, that would be a hard sell. But it does challenge a widely touted statistic. Wilson and Korn don’t believe that their inquiry excuses faculty from developing ways to keep students attentive and focused on course content. They also believe that individual differences are relevant when considering how well students are listening. And they think that what students have in their notes is more important than how many of them they are taking.

Wilson, K. and Korn, J. H. (2007). Attention during lectures: Beyond ten minutes. Teaching of Psychology, 34 (2), 85–89.

Excerpted from Student Attention Spans, The Teaching Professor, January 2008.

Dr. Maryellen Weimer is the editor The Teaching Professor, and a professor emerita, teaching and learning, Penn State-Berks.