Paying or Gaining? Who’s Responsible for Attention?

January 10, 2018

I have it right now this very instant --- your Attention.  You’ve given it for a few minutes but if this content doesn’t continue to earn it, your Attention will move on.  It can’t help it.  The Brain is a data-seeking missile constantly gathering key information about surroundings in order to assess what is vital to your survival.  If it determines the information on this page isn’t relevant, your Attention will automatically shift to something seemingly more important (perhaps that text message on your phone).

Attention is the linchpin of cognitive processing.  Without it, learning simply cannot occur. But who is responsible for Attention?  In a traditional classroom setting we expect students to “pay” or “give” their attention to the content being presented.  We tell ourselves it’s their responsibility and we should not have to earn their attention.  But Robert Gagne, a lauded professor in the field of cognitive science, reminded instructors that they had a key role to play.  He placed the task of “Gaining Attention” at the top of his list of Nine Events of Instruction (   

Instructors may have some control over whether a student pays or gives their attention to the topic at hand by removing potential distractions such as technology, but we also need to make sure we are doing everything possible to gain and maintain learner attention.

The Hook

How are you gaining learner attention?  In other words, what sets the tone for the class and the upcoming content?  Consider these content-related ways of kicking off class:

Start with a provocative question.  Ask learners to write down as many responses as they can think of in 30 seconds, take another 30 seconds for them to explain to a person next to them and then have them share responses with you.

-    Demonstrate or role play a key concept to be discussed in detail during the class.  

Project a set of visual images that represent the content for the day and begin by asking learners how the images are connected to the topic.

Show a short YouTube clip of an everyday event that is based on the correct resolution of a problem you’ll be discussing that day.

You’ve Got It Now Keep It – Surprise Them!

Computer games and videos have changed the speed at which today’s learners can manage and learn new information (Nunley, 2006) which means, as Nunley puts it “you can’t lecture fast enough” to keep learners from becoming easily bored.

Bowen (2017) suggests, “Class time should come with application, complication, extension and a surprise – some form of additional difficulty, new ambiguity, or real-world complication.”  Bowen recommends using one of the pre-class problems or readings assigned but changing the data, extending the conditions, adding a complication or reframing the problem.  What if a learner doesn’t do the pre-class assignment?  They’ll be lost.  And this will send the message that class preparation matters.  For those that did prepare, the “surprise” will peak their curiosity about how the next pre-class assignment might be used.  

Changing the pace of the class can also surprise learners and refocus their attention. Present 2-3 key concepts and then:

  • Shift to 2-3 clicker questions.

  • Provide a problem to be solved in groups of 3.

  • Ask learners to use their technology to research further details about the concept and share them with the class.  

Then present the next set of concepts and insert another processing activity.  

Sometimes it may seem as if activities interspersed throughout the lecture bogs the flow of the class down.  Don’t be afraid to set a fast time limit on the activities.  For example, “you have 1 minute to come to agreement on your answer” or “in the next 30 seconds list all the things you know about concept z”.   

So as you begin this new year, new semester here are two questions for you to consider:  How will you hook them?  How will you surprise them?  Every. Single. Class.

Need ideas?  Don’t forget you have brainstorming partners here at the Center for Teaching and Learning.  Simply email for a free consultation.