Timing is Everything: Using Short Student Attention Spans to Your Advantage in the Classroom
The old adage “timing is everything” is as true in education as it is in life. For teachers, developing a successful class period or lesson can depend upon how effectively it is structured. Similar to the cliché about first impressions, the way teachers spend their first ten minutes in a class sets the tone for the remainder of the time. Similarly, the way lesson time is structured impacts student understanding and retention.
Ready, set, go: Teachers need techniques to harness students’ attention and energy as soon as they arrive in the classroom
Students enter the classroom with divided attention. Beyond daily distractions such as smartphones or other technological toys, students have lives outside the four walls they occupy for a short time. It is often difficult for them to cast friends, sports or even other classes from their minds as they walk through the classroom door.
Beginning class with effective transitions
Much like the hook of a well-written essay, teachers need strategies to capture the attention of their students in the first ten minutes of class. James M. Lang, English professor and author of “Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning,” suggested several techniques for teachers to try in an article on the topic in the “Chronicle of Higher Education.”
Ask questions related to today’s topic
Start with a few questions and ask students to consider the answer. Ensure that the questions relate to the reading from the previous night or the lesson for that day. Lang advises teachers to be sure to return to the questions at the end of class.
Activate prior knowledge with recaps
Begin class by asking students to recap what was covered in the last class. This is a natural way to help students access their previous knowledge, thereby helping them to build upon their previous knowledge. Furthermore, the process of asking students to recall information helps to ensure students remember the information.
Short writing exercises help students focus
Ask students to do a quick writing activity. This might be done in tandem with the above two suggestions, or, alternatively, teachers could ask students to respond to a quote or prompt. Teachers can collect these responses for participation points or simply walk around to ensure students complete the work.
Effectively setting up the beginning of class ensures that students engage in the course content from the very beginning, which better enables students to access and retain information.
Using student-centered pedagogy to battle short attention spans
Students in the 21st century do not have the same attention span as students did 10 or 20 years ago. Educational research has found that students focus on a single activity from 10-18 minutes, between seven and eight minutes, or even as low as two minutes. Research shows that while students commonly lose focus for under a minute before they refocus, their ability to maintain attention diminishes throughout the class period. Additionally, students focus more effectively when teachers integrate in student-centered pedagogies.
Considering that students are more actively engaged at the beginning of the class aside from the first few minutes when they are settling in, it may be more effective to begin classes with lectures and shift to an activity about 20-25 minutes into the class period. From there, teachers can return to recap the activity, which will promote student interest and engagement as it is a reflection of the activity that they just completed. Regardless of the structure, research shows that integrating in activities ensures and switching up content delivery modes helps to maintain student interest.
Wrapping it up: Improve recall by asking students to make connections and apply knowledge at the end of class
At the end of the class, it is important that teachers wrap up the material covered in order to ensure students remember what was covered and connect it to what has been done and what will be done. Additionally, students need an opportunity to apply their knowledge; the last 10 minutes of a lesson are a good time to do so. Some tips to end class:
- Reference questions or activities completed in the first five minutes of class. Ask students to discuss what they wrote or to reflect on how their understanding has changed.
- Ask students to apply the information taught to an activity before they leave class. This helps to cement the information before they go home.
- Discuss how what the class did today will relate to their homework or how it bridges into the next class.
Wrapping up the class and helping students to bookend the lesson ensures students understand the purpose and use of the information they have received. It helps them connect their learning to what comes next as well.
Structured class periods improve student learning
Timing is everything, and teachers who carefully structure the class period ensure students are able to activate prior learning, effectively receive information and remember the information they learned.
Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.Learn More: Click to view related resources.
- James M. Lang, "Small Changes in Teaching: The First 5 Minutes of Class," The Chronicle of Higher Education
- Saga Briggs, "The Science of Attention: How To Capture And Hold The Attention of Easily Distracted Students," InformED