Foundational Principles

Humans cannot process everything they experience at once, and if it is not processed it cannot be learned.

What percentage of time during a lecture do you think students are paying attention?

The fact is you don’t have (much of) their attention. Observational and student self-report studies suggest that during lectures, college students are paying attention 40-65% of the time.

Ever feel like you are always having to repeat yourself?

One reason is the percentage of time students are paying attention. A second reason is that retaining information, even when paying attention, is a really hard thing to do by itself. In fact, testing immediately following a 50 minute lecture suggests retention rates of 40-50%. More so, as the length of a lecture increases, attentional lapses become more frequent and as a result, the proportion of material remembered decreases further.

If paying attention is so difficult, and retrieval of information even harder, what’s to be done?

  1. Manipulate factors that you can influence to increase attention. There are four documented factors that impact how a learner pays attention: arousal, interest, fluency, and enjoyment. Identify ways to generate and facilitate these (mostly) intrinsic motivators, and student attention during class should increase accordingly.

  2. Break up the lecture to help students re-focus. Not only does a change of pace allow students to re-start their attention clock which is on a ~15-20 minute attention curve, but attention can increase somewhat dramatically by utilizing other pedagogies in addition to lecture in balanced ways. Student reports of attention during discussion are ~75%, and during problem solving ~85%. If that wasn’t enough good news to compel a balanced pedagogical approach, there is evidence of increased focus during lecture immediately following such a change-up. Consider how a balanced pedagogical approach that draws on formative assessment could enrich student learning in a course. Tools like a muddiest point question, minute paper, clickers, and think-pair-share are just a few examples of how a formative assessment could help break-up a lecture, allow students to re-focus and pay better attention, reinforce retrieval and learning, and possibly serve as jumping off points to drive a discussion or problem solving activity.

*content on this page was adapted from the Teaching Excellence Colloquium workshop "How Students Learn", by Chelan Huddleston (College of Letters and Science)