Five ways to: Sustain Student Attention

Five Ways. A series of short posts summarising some everyday classroom practices.

In order to learn new conceptual ideas and new skills, we need to focus our attention -our conscious thinking – on the material we’re trying to learn. There’s a place for some intentional ‘attention-grabbing’ – something that breaks the rhythm of an exchange; something that’s a bit ‘whizz bang’ – but this kind of episodic attention might not always lead to the conceptual learning we’re seeking and certainly can’t be sustained. There’s also the hope that the material is simply intrinsically interesting – the book, the story, the lecture, the maths exercise… we might want to imagine students will sustain attention just to continue the sheer joy of the learning. But we all know that even in very interesting films, books and lectures, our attention can drift. We’re human. And of course the students with the least prior knowledge and weakest powers of self-regulation will drift fastest.

In reality, in most cases, attention that is sustained takes effort; it requires motivation – it’s not something we can just take for granted – from ourselves, let alone our students. Given how many things are competing for mental attention at any one time and how hidden all this is to anyone else, teachers need to think about how to secure students’ attention in planned ways – rather than just assuming that students are paying attention because of their externally visible behaviours. We’re not just talking about removing distractions and getting students ‘looking and listening’ in a performative sense; we want them to focus their mental attention on the learning in hand.

To give an example, compare these scenarios:

  • A teacher asks a class ‘can anyone list the last 6 US Presidents in order? ‘ – a typical question prompt for that teacher. Making the list seems effortful to Leon even though he has the knowledge stored somewhere and, short term, he has no immediate incentive to engage in the task, exploring his schema, making the effort because he can just wait to see if someone else gives the answer; they usually do. That’s the norm. Even if he’s making eye contact with the teacher, he might not be focusing his attention on his knowledge of US Presidents as we waits for the big reveal. He can opt out and wait – so he does.
  • However, by contrast if the teacher said ‘Ok, everyone, write down the names of the last 6 US Presidents’ and began to circulate, or said ‘Ok, be ready to list the last 6 presidents, I’ll be cold calling’ – then Leon has an incentive. He could be asked to answer; he needs to show he is producing the visible list on his whiteboard. This incentive helps him to marshall the mental resources needed; he focuses his attention more or less without hesitation because this is the norm. He knows the names, makes the effort to retrieve and organise them and produces the list.

The example is obviously contrived- it might not be a very useful list to make! But the point applies to us all the time. Securing and sustaining attention requires creating short term incentives for students to prioritise their use of energy and conscious thinking ‘space’ around the material we want them to learn – ideally without it being a big decision; it’s just expected, normalised, routine, everyday.

Here are five ways:

Short-loop Generative Learning Tasks

A generative task requires students to select and organise information, engaging with new knowledge using their prior knowledge, thereby integrating it into a deeper schema. This could be to :

  • organise information into a sequence
  • summarise a story
  • explain a concept to someone using the key vocabulary
  • create a structured mind map -with four key categories.

To be truly generative, the students have to do these things mainly on their own, using their own knowledge – not borrowing from others. The short-loop is about the task being quick enough to do and then check a) that it’s been done by everyone and b) that it is as valid or accurate as the material requires, without the class diverging too much. The motivation then comes from knowing it will be checked or simply the norm-nudging effect that everyone else is also doing it. But a good task is one you can’t do without thinking using your prior knowledge and focusing your attention. That’s the key.

Questioning with accountability

This is one of main goals of a good repertoire of questioning techniques: to create a culture where students’ default to expecting to answer all the questions, thinking for themselves. Attention is secured by students knowing that they could be asked a question about what is happening – more or less at any time. It’s not a massive spot-lit gotcha; it’s just a normal everyday expectation.

  • Cold calling: Ask…. pause for thinking…. then select a student. eg Read the first stanza of the poem. What’s the metaphor in the first stanza?.…. pause for thinking…….. Alice? Alice expects to be asked; she focuses her attention. Do you agree? What else could she have said? …. pause for thinking. …… Abdi, what do you think? Abdi sustains his attention on the poem and also subsequent responses.
  • Pair Share: After the pairs conclude their discussion…… Ok, what were the three main conclusions you came up with? ..Michael, let’s hear yours. Michael knew he could be asked even as he listened to Yasmin, his talk partner; he’d sustained his attention on the short discussion with Yasmin in case he was asked.

Listening with accountability

During class discussions and Q&A exchanges, students who do not feel involved can drift off. Similarly, during an extended explanation, demonstration or text reading, students can lose attention. Accountability for listening is reinforced by punctuating these inputs with checks. These in turn sustain attention:

Stop and Check for Understanding:

  • Ok everyone, what just happened to the indicator solution? ..Jordan?
  • So, what’s the key message Orwell is giving us there… Xavier?

Track the speaker: Great point Melissa. So, Rohan, what was Melissa’s main argument? Jamil, do you agree with Rohan? The expectation is that students follow the discussion, not just focus on their own view of things. Creating cross-class accountability for listening is a means of sustaining attention to what is being discussed a useful check for understanding.

Track the board: So if this angle is 72 and x is the unknown angle here, what’s the theorem we need to use to find it? Comparing these quotes, what’s the key difference between that version and this version? The expectation is that students track the board – or the visualiser screen. They are following you as you navigate your diagrams and examples….focusing their attention so they know what this and that refer to, again anticipating a possible cold call question.


This harnesses the power of narrative structures where we naturally run ahead to imagine future story arcs and possible outcomes. These hooks are useful for securing attention in any exposition or story-telling scenario:

  • So, if I double the value of x, what’s going to happen to the graph? … Siobhan? Shall we see if you’re right…
  • Oooh, interesting! It’s getting tense now isn’t it. What do you think will happen to the rabbit next? … Suzie? Robert? Let’s turn the page…
  • If we reverse the polarity on the terminals, what will happen to the way the motor behaves? ..James? Ok. Test it and see if you’re right.

Make it personal

If you can tap into students’ personal investment in a set of ideas, it helps them to filter out distractions and sustain attention. This can be linked to their emotional connection to the ideas or their concrete experience which helps provide a more secure foundation for the learning. This can be done with both physical and real-life experiences and imagined experiences.

The aesthetic question: In MARGE, Shimamura suggests that the ‘aesthetic question’ is powerful for motivating learning; ‘What do you think? How does it make you feel? Why is it good?  As he explains: ” The aesthetic question engages emotional brain circuits and forces us to attend to and organize our knowledge.”

Make it theirs: Give students some ownership – something tangible so they’re invested in the discussions:

  • handling materials when discussing their properties – Kyra, how does the ice feel in your hand?
  • looking at our bean plants, Sacha, what can you see happening to the roots of yours?
  • reading part of a text that has been allocated to a student – James, let’s hear your extract – how does it connect to Toni’s?

Put them in the centre of things: sustain attention by placing real or hypothetical decisions in students’ hands so that they feel invested:

  • if you were responsible, which combination of flood defences would you prioritise?
  • if you were making that case for women’s suffrage at the time, what would your main argument have been?
  • put yourself in that situation, how would the evidence look to you?
  • choose from these options – which phrase makes the most dramatic opening to our story?
  • you’re the judge Simon, which of those explanations is the most accurate?
  • would you choose the short-term savings this year or the savings over a 10 year life cycle?

Here’s David Goodwins’ one-page summary:

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