Why Can’t Students Just Pay Attention?

We have all had the experience of having students sitting in our classes, looking directly at us, and knowing, just knowing, that they are not paying the least bit of attention to what we are talking about or what the topic of the day is. In fact, if we don’t see this in our classes (and I believe we all do…it’s just that some of us don’t wish to admit it), all an instructor has to do is review assignments, quizzes, or exams to find evidence that students don’t understand key concepts that were highlighted as “really important” or “critical” to understanding the material.

Research on attention

There is a healthy amount of research on attention in the cognitive psychology literature. Topics include focused attention, divided attention, executive control of attention, attention span, etc. All of the topics are directly relevant to the undergraduate student. How do we help our students develop the skills necessary to focus their attention on our classes?

Before we get into too much detail of ways to enhance attention, we should explain what we mean by attention. Attention, as defined in the cognitive literature, refers to the idea that students have a finite amount of cognitive resources available at any given moment to devote to a particular stimuli from their sensory environment. To that end, students’ attention is constantly shuttling between what they are experiencing externally and internally. Certain branches of psychology may quibble with my use of the terms, but the idea is that at any given moment, you select from a large number of potential stimuli and focus on a small number of them. If class is interesting and there is activity, students can focus on those activities and work to remember that information for later use. However, when class isn’t engaging, students will find other things to occupy their attention.

Sometimes, students work to multi-task while in class. In this case, students try to engage in activities on their laptop, iPad, or phone while also believing they are “paying attention” in class. This does not seem to work for them, however. By engaging in such activities, students draw necessary resources away from immersing themselves in the content, resulting in poorer performance.

What can we do?

Although some faculty believe that the burden of attention rests solely on the student, there are things we can do to help to keep them actively involved in their learning. For students to pay attention in a class, there needs to be sufficient need for that attention to be devoted to the material at hand. That is, we need to engage the students in ways that make it difficult for them to pay attention to anything else. Anecdotally, there are two key benefits to this:

  1. Students report that the class goes by more quickly and they remember more.
  2. Faculty report fewer problems in the classroom and that students seem more prepared for class.

How do we engage students?

There are several strategies for engaging students in the classroom, and many of them have been written about under the umbrella of “effective teaching strategies” and “student-centered” approaches. The reality is that any strategy that utilizes the following will engage students and require that their attention is devoted to the class and not to other pursuits:

  1. Ask questions and require students to write responses. Then ask again and have them read their answers to the class (not all, obviously, but a sampling).
  2. Have students respond to questions about readings or a previous class activity and bring those answers to foster peer discussions.
  3. Craft mini-lectures to include time for student comment, feedback, and response.
  4. Focus learning on student perspectives.
  5. Create rapport with students and build a classroom climate where students feel comfortable sharing their ideas.

As basic as these seem, many, many faculty do not engage in activities that include active learning with students. The default teaching strategy remains largely lecture-based. In our efforts to “cover” the content we have created classrooms that are devoid of interaction.

Why we need to promote student engagement

When students are not engaged, attention wanes. When attention wanes, learning decreases. There is overwhelming evidence to support the idea that deep processing, resulting from engaged students, leads to better learning (Brown, Roedigger & McDaniel, 2014; Benassi, Overson, & Hakala, 2013). If we want to create a climate of learning, curiosity, inquiry and engagement, we need to work with our students to ensure that this takes place.

Benassi VA, Overson CE, Hakala CM. (2014). Applying science of learning in education: infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology website: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php.

Brown PC, Roediger HL, McDaniel MA. (2014). Make it stick: the science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Chris Hakala is the director of teaching and learning and a professor of psychology at Quinnipiac University.