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Classroom Strategies for Maintaining Student Focus

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The following manuscript seeks to provide a selection of methods and strategies for holding student attention. The difference between focused and sustained attention is first highlighted, and subsequently used to dissect those factors found to be most important for maintaining student focus. These factors are classified into three groups: distractions, student interest and understanding, and learning preferences. Distractions are further subdivided into both manageable and unmanageable types; advice for managing distraction in the classroom is provided. Teaching methods for increasing student interest and understanding are also discussed, with a focus on lengthening student attention span. A brief review of well-known auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning preferences is used to provide a foundation for maintaining student interest. Lastly, a series of classroom-tested suggestions for holding student attention is provided. While a final emphasis is placed on techniques for teaching English to Latin American university students, all material should be applicable to a wide audience.
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Classroom Strategies for Maintaining Student Focus
Jared James Gerschler
Faculty of Languages, Universidad del Papaloapan
Tuxtepec, Oaxaca
ABSTRACT:
The following manuscript seeks to provide a selection of methods and strategies for
holding student attention. The difference between focused and sustained attention is first
highlighted, and subsequently used to dissect those factors found to be most important for
maintaining student focus. These factors are classified into three groups: distractions, student
interest and understanding, and learning preferences. Distractions are further subdivided into
both manageable and unmanageable types; advice for managing distraction in the classroom is
provided. Teaching methods for increasing student interest and understanding are also
discussed, with a focus on lengthening student attention span. A brief review of well-known
auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning preferences is used to provide a foundation for
maintaining student interest. Lastly, a series of classroom-tested suggestions for holding
student attention is provided. While a final emphasis is placed on techniques for teaching
English to Latin American university students, all material should be applicable to a wide
audience.
KEYWORDS: Teaching English as a Second Language, Student Focus, Attention Span,
Latin American University Students
2
INTRODUCTION
In this modern era full of digital distractions, how are teachers expected to hold the
attention of their students? While maintaining student focus has always been a challenge,
recent studies suggest that the average attention span of both adults and children has decreased
(Barnes et al., 2007). Most psychologists argue this is likely a result of the “21st century”
lifestyle, which emphasizes instant gratification and provides a dizzying quantity of
entertainment options. While historically, long-distance instant communication was
unavailable, this is no longer the case two individuals on opposite sides of the planet can
hold a real-time conversation. Patience and forethought are no longer required, and we’ve
become accustomed to an array of digital devices and advertising media fighting for our
attention at every turn.
The concept of attention span is of utmost importance in the classroom, where a failure
to focus can have disastrous results. Understanding how to lengthen student attention span,
while simultaneously maintaining student focus, is a valuable skill for today’s teachers.
ATTENTION CLASSIFICATION
While the concept of attention is categorized in a variety of manners, education
psychologists often concentrate on two types of attention: focused and sustained. Sustained
attention is recognized as the traditional concept of attention, in which an individual is
dedicated to a task for a period of time, usually on the scale of minutes (Sarter et al., 2001). A
student closely following a lesson, while actively participating and drawing conclusions about
the material, is exhibiting sustained attention. The amount of time which a person spends in a
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period of sustained attention is known as attention span. Provided a self-chosen task, the
attention span for adolescents and adults averages approximately 20 minutes (Middendorf,
1995). The attention span of a young child lasts roughly five minutes. Among individuals of
all ages, total uninterrupted attention span rarely exceeds 40 minutes, after which time
repeated refocusing is required (Dukette and Cornish, 2009).
Focused attention, a variant of selective attention, is attention which is devoted to an
interruption, such as a doorbell chime or ringing phonesomething that disrupts a period of
sustained attention (Treisman, 1969). This type of attention need only last for a brief period of
time (in some cases, mere seconds). As focused attention is a distraction from a period of
sustained attention, it is not generally considered useful for learning purposes.
Enjoyable lesson plans and tasks which are inherently motivating will help to preserve
student attention for the longest period of time.
FACTORS AFFECTING ATTENTION SPAN
A variety of factors have been found to provide either a positive or negative influence
on attention span. While not all aspects affecting attention span are controllable by an
instructor, student focus can be dramatically improved if a teacher makes an effort to involve
students and minimize distraction. As displayed in Figure 1, there are three main factors which
affect attention span: distractions, student interest and understanding, and student learning
preferences.
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Figure 1. Components of attention span
Distractions encompass a wide range of events, and can indicate the initiation of a
focused attention event (for example, a tap on the shoulder), or may also represent a
continuous distraction, such as music playing outside a classroom. Attention span is also
modified by both student interest and understanding of a given taskinteresting and well-
understood assignments are typified by a longer student attention span. Of course, the opposite
is also true: confusion will have a negative effect on student focus. Students must be provided
sufficient background instruction before any meaningful activity is undertaken. Finally, as
individuals tend to exhibit learning preferences (often classified as auditory, visual, and
tactile/kinesthetic), these preferences may be taken into account when planning a lesson and
used to further increase student attention span.
DISTRACTIONS
There are a variety of factors which affect student concentration in the classroom
(Table 1). Some of these factors are controllable by the teacher (deemed “manageable
factors”), while others are outside of the realm of control, and are generally accepted as
Attention
Span
Distractions Interest and
Understanding
Learning
Preferences
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uncontrollable (so-called “unmanageable factors”). The duty of an instructor is to first identify
which classroom disturbances are manageable, and then to make the necessary changes so as
to minimize the total contribution of manageable distractions. Manageable factors which
impact student focus include the classroom noise level
(talking, shouting…etc.), student behavior (which may
not necessarily be auditory in naturee.g. note
passing), and the use of electronic devices such as cell
phones and computers. These actions are all
controllable by the teacher, and allow an effective
method of helping students to concentrate and pay
attention.
A significant portion of student concentration is
reliant on factors which are not usually manageable by the instructor. These factors include
both student physical issues (e.g. hunger, fatigue, sickness), and emotional issues (e.g.
interpersonal relationships, depression). Furthermore, there are external influences which are
entirely separate from student issues: construction noise or institutional concerns, for example.
Student concentration can be interrupted due to an external distraction, or as a result of
the student reaching the limits of his or her attention span. Once concentration has been
interrupted and a student is no longer able to focus, there are several solutions. Taking a break
from the task, or changing activities are two solutions which should be incorporated into a
quality lesson plan, as a typical class is longer than the average human attention span. If,
however, concentration loss results from an external interruption, there are only two
possibilities for restoring attention: the distraction must be eliminated, or the student must
Table 1. Factors affecting student
concentration
Manageable Factors
Classroom noise level
Student behavior
Electronic devices
Unmanageable Factors
Student fatigue
Hunger
Thirst
External noise
Physical afflictions
Personal issues
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manually refocus. In many situations (the “Unmanageable Factors” in Table 1), the only
solution is a conscious effort by the student to focus on the task at hand. This is made easier
for the student if the lesson is interesting or otherwise motivating.
INTEREST AND UNDERSTANDING
The ability of a student to focus during class is partially a result of the student’s interest
and understanding of the material. By assuring that students have an adequate background to
comprehend new lessons, an instructor can be better assured that students are paying attention
and gaining valuable knowledge while in class. Likewise, a lack of understanding or guidance
can lead to frustration, which will cause students to lose interest in a task, thereby shortening
attention span and breaking concentration. For this reason, it is important that the teacher
ensures that students have the experience necessary to understand the lesson, and that
guidance is provided when questions arise.
Student interest in an assignment is heavily dependent on lesson design. This is the art
of teachingturning potentially dry, mediocre material into something fun and entertaining
for participants. Interesting material begets interested students.
USING LEARNING PREFERENCES TO MAXIMIZE STUDENT FOCUS
The idea that individuals have different manners of learning was first widely described
by the concept of “learning styles,” which began to appear in published literature in the
1970’s. Keefe and Ferrel (1990) define learning style as
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“…a gestalt combining internal and external operations derived from the
individual's neurobiology, personality and development, and reflected in learner
behavior.”
In essence, this signifies that each individual has a unique set of preferences for learning
which are based on a range of genetic and environmental factors.
There are currently over 70 distinct models for identifying learning styles, most of
which rely on testing to determine an individual’s learning classification (Slater, 2007). Shown
in Table 2 are four well-known learning style theories, where Dunn’s (1978) Visual, Auditory,
Kinesthetic (VAK) model (later popularized by Fleming) is arguably the best recognized.
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Table 2. Popular learning style models
Learning Model
Defining Characteristics
Dunn, Fleming
(1954, 1978)
Recognizes three types of learners:
Auditory (learn through listening)
Visual (learn using visual stimuli)
Kinesthetic (learn through experience, tactile involvement)
Gregorc and Butler
(1984)
Individuals are divided into four types using perceptual quality and
ordering ability:
Concrete Sequential (using the senses to gather data in a
logical manner)
Abstract Sequential (using abstract thinking to logically store
information)
Concrete Random (using the senses to gather data in
disordered chunks)
Abstract Random (using abstract thinking to store data in
disordered chunks)
Honey and
Mumford
(1982)
Characterizes experiential learners into four types:
Activist (prefers learning from new experiences)
Reflector (learns by observing, thinking, and then reviewing)
Theorist (learns logically, step-by-step)
Pragmatist (prefers to test knowledge through application)
Kolb
(1984)
An experiential learning model possessing four distinct learning
styles:
Converger (abstract conceptualization and active
experimentation)
Diverger (reflective observation and concrete experience)
Assimilator (uses reflective observation and abstract
conceptualization)
Accommodator (uses concrete experience and active
experimentation)
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The existence of learning styles has been widely criticized. In 2008, the Association for
Psychological Science (APS) published an assessment of the learning styles concept (Pashler,
2008). The assessment determined that the majority of studies which seek to support the idea
of individual learning styles are improperly designed. Furthermore, of those studies which are
correctly designed, the vast majority do not support the theory of individualized learning
styles.
While the idea of defined learning styles is widely contested, evidence strongly
suggests the existence of learning preferences (Loo, 2004). Learning preferences are nearly
identical to learning styles, but without the associated rigid framework locking individuals into
a single style. One of the most widely recognized classifications of learning preferences
divides learning approaches into a combination of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic methods. A
student may express an equal preference for all three techniques, but more commonly an
individual will exhibit a stronger preference for a particular method. The student’s attention
span will be positively or negatively affected by the prevalence (or absence) of this teaching
style during class. In a group of students, it is likely that each student will express different
learning preferencesfor this reason it is best to design lessons which include auditory, visual
and kinesthetic aspects (Table 3).
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Table 3. Visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (VAK) teaching techniques
Learning Preference
Associated Teaching Strategies
Visual
Overhead slides, PowerPoint presentations, handouts, games,
diagrams, roleplaying
Auditory
Recorded audio, lectures, discussions, music, roleplaying,
games
Kinesthetic
Active exploration, activities involving movement, games,
roleplaying
There are a variety of classroom tasks (e.g. roleplaying, games…etc.) which can be designed
to accommodate all three learning preferences.
STRATEGIES FOR HOLDING STUDENT ATTENTION
Once an instructor has minimized distractions, maximized student interest and
understanding, and accounted for learning preferences, what are the necessary teaching
strategies for taking full advantage of student’s lengthened attention span? The following, a
series of ten tried-and-true methods for holding students attention, is based on a combination
of the author’s personal experience and additional information modified from publications by
Partin (1987) and Levy (2012). While the list is aimed at English instructors, it should be
applicable to other areas as well.
a. Teach relevant material
Material should conform to the interests and needs of the students. English lessons, for
example, should encompass believable scenarios, including situations which are directly
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applicable to the student’s lives. While both professional and every-day vocabulary should be
emphasized, an additional effort should be made to assure that the terminology is not outdated.
Furthermore, university students studying technical majors will often respond positively to
occasional lessons which are directly applicable to their field of study. One well-received
English class example: A scientific journal discussion for chemistry majors.
b. Show enthusiasm
An enthusiastic teacher helps to maintain a positive, energetic classroom environment
which helps to keep students involved in the lesson. Enthusiasm can be construed by using an
upbeat, changing tone of voice, or also by using movement: walking around the classroom or
using hand motions while speaking can help to convey a sense of passion about the subject
being discussed.
c. Use a sense of humor
The use of humor can work wonders for student attentiveness and comfort. Stressed-
out students have difficulty learning and paying attentiona well-placed joke puts students at
ease, while keeping them in an alert state ready for learning. Additionally, a sense of humor
can help to increase the “fun-factor” of a lesson, turning a dry subject into something more
interesting.
d. Teach at an appropriate level of difficulty
Lessons should be taught at a level appropriate to the needs of the students. The ideal
lesson is an extension of information which is familiar to the students from a past lesson,
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coupled with a selection of new material. The students should be able to relate the new
information to the material they have previously learned. By making connections and drawing
conclusions, students will better grasp the contents of the lesson. This will in turn maintain
student interest while improving understanding.
e. Use variety when teaching
To maintain student focus and take advantage of learning preferences, lessons should
be formed using a variety of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic techniques. This will help to
prevent boredom and inattention and help to increase information retention by the students.
f. Carefully plan and structure lessons, but maintain flexibility
Lessons should be carefully planned and structured. The learning objectives should be
specified at the beginning of class, so that students have an idea of what they are expected to
gain from the lesson. Concluding the lesson with a brief review of what was covered, and how
it compares to the original objectives provides students an opportunity to ask questions and
clear up doubts. While well-structured lessons are essential for solid teaching, the curriculum
should also include some flexibilityunexpected events may interrupt class, but may also
provide for interesting teaching opportunities.
g. Encourage student participation
Student involvement is critical for holding attention during class. Passive listening,
while at times necessary, often provides an opportunity for distraction. Lessons should be
13
planned for student participation: writing on the board, preparing skits, or working in groups,
for example.
h. Minimize criticism, maximize positive reinforcement
Criticism can have a derogatory effect on student participation, and should be avoided
when possible. Any negative feelings associated with class participation will limit voluntary
student involvement in lessons, and promote an atmosphere of negativity. Instead, it is
suggested that positive reinforcement be used, praising student effort and understanding. Of
course, some moderation should be applied as an excess of positive commentary will diminish
the value of the teacher’s compliments.
i. Make lessons clear
Lessons should be presented in a manner which is clearly understandable by students.
This implies that level-appropriate vocabulary is used, and that words are spoken in a clear,
audible manner.
j. Divide learning tasks into smaller sub-skills
Lessons should be divided into more manageable units, so that students do not feel
overwhelmed by the extent of a particularly complicated lesson. The sub-lessons should be
presented in a logical sequence and in a manageable size, while assuring that students have the
necessary background to understand the lesson presented.
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AUTHOR’S NOTE: TEACHING LATIN AMERICAN UNIVERSITY STUDENTS
While all of the aforementioned strategies for holding student attention are applicable
to Latin American university students, the author provides the following classroom-tested
suggestions for successfully teaching English to such students.
a. Group work
As the concepts of individualism and independence aren’t typically quite as strong as
in some nations (e.g. the United States), group activities tend to work quite welloften with
minimal frustration among students. One caveat: the instructor must monitor group progress
and assure that all students understand the material and are actively participating.
b. Using music
Music, when not overused, can prove valuable for an English teacher. Many students
have heard songs in English when listening to the radio and want to know the meaning of the
lyrics. Music can be used as a memorization aid (the “alphabet song”), to improve listening
comprehension, and to increase vocabulary, among other possibilities. The primary challenge
for the instructor is to find music that is appropriate for the skill level of the students.
c. Roleplaying
With the proper guidance and background, skits are a favorite of many students.
Themes must be chosen carefully to assure that student vocabulary and knowledge is
adequate. Skits provide an opportunity for both speaking and listening, which can help
15
improve student pronunciation and comprehension. Additionally, creative skits may include
visual, auditory, and kinesthetic aspects.
d. Games
Games are a great way to introduce or fortify a concept in a fun manner. While the
possibilities are endless, the challenge is designing a game which stays interesting and also
effectively imparts knowledge.
e. Humor, patience, and flexibility
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there are several personality traits which will aid
an English instructor when teaching Latin American students. A sense of humor is invaluable
in transcending cultural barriers and making students feel comfortable in the classroom.
Humor should be kept simple, as certain concepts and jokes do not translate effectively!
Patience and flexibility are both traits which will lower the classroom stress level, helping to
keep both students and instructors content. Teaching in Latin America, while usually similar
to teaching in a westernized country, can at times be a dramatically different experience. Take,
for example, the concept of punctuality. In many western countries events usually start and
end promptly, while in much of Latin America events tend to start late and end late.
Regardless of the numerous cultural differences that may be faced by an English teacher,
patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor are instrumental for the well-adjusted instructor.
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CONCLUSION
Maintaining student focus, while not a new challenge, has taken on a new level of
complexity in today’s digital society. Effectively holding student attention requires a
multipronged approach. First, attention span must be lengthened as much as possible. This is
done by minimizing distractions, ensuring the adequacy of student background and
understanding, and teaching using visual, auditory, and kinesthetic methods. Once attention
span is maximized, the instructor should use an array of techniques to hold student focus.
Lessons should be planned in manageable sizes, and be structured to include relevant material
characterized by variety and opportunities for student participation. The teacher should
provide clear instructions, while maintaining an enthusiastic attitude and using positive
reinforcement when possible.
When teaching English to Latin American students, suggested attention-holding
strategies include games, roleplaying, music, and moderated group work. A healthy dose of
humor, patience and flexibility will work wonders for the classroom environment, and help to
transcend cultural barriers.
REFERENCES
Barnes, K. et al. "Teaching and Learning with the Net Generation." Journal of Online Ed. Vol.
3. No. 4. 2007.pp. 1-8.
Dukette, D. and Cornish, D. The Essential 20: Twenty Components of an Excellent Health
Care Team. RoseDog Books. 2009. pp. 7273.
Dunn, R. and Dunn, K. Teaching Students Through Their Individual Learning Styles: A
Practical Approach. Virginia, Reston Publishing. 1978.
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Gregorc, A. and Butler, K. “Learning is a matter of style.” Vocational Education. Vol. 58. No.
3. 1984. pp. 27-29.
Honey, P. and Mumford, A. “The manual of learning styles.” Maidenhead Publishing. 1982.
Keefe, J. and Ferrell, B. “Developing a defensible learning style paradigm. Educational
Leadership. Vol. 48. 1990. p. 16.
Kolb, D. Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 1984.
Levy, S. “15 Little Tricks to Get Your Class’s Attention (and Hold It).” Accessed September
8th, 2012. http://www.esl.about.com/6047-15-tricks-get-your-class-attention-hold-it.html
Loo, R. "Kolb's learning styles and learning preferences: is there a linkage?" Ed. Psych. Vol.
24. No. 1. 2004. pp. 1-15.
Middendorf, J. and Kalish, A. "The 'change-up' in lectures." Natl. Teach. Learn. Forum. Vol.
5. No. 2. 1995. pp. 1-5.
Pashler, H. et al. "Learning styles: Concepts and evidence." Psychological Science in the
Public Interest. Issue 9. 2008. pp. 105119.
Partin, R. L. Fifteen guidelines for developing attention-holding lessons.” Middle School.
Vol. 18. 1987. pp. 12-13.
Slater, J. et al. "Does gender influence learning style preferences of first-year medical
students?" Advan. in Physiol. Edu. Vol. 31. 2007. pp. 336-342.
Sarter, M. et al. "The cognitive neuroscience of sustained attention: where top-down meets
bottom-up." Brain Research Reviews. Vol. 35. Issue 2. 2001. pp. 146-160.
Treisman, A. "Strategies and models of selective attention." Psych. Rev. Vol. 76. 1969. pp.
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