What is it to pay attention? Why is it that sometimes I can be engaged in a conversation when suddenly my focus of attention is drawn away from it, only to return when I realise I’m expected to offer a response to a comment I didn’t catch? And what was it that disrupted by attention in the first place? Was it the ping of a notification on my phone, or did I simply became engulfed by my inner musings? With the world seemingly littered with innumerable distractions, it’s a wonder we manage to keep our minds focussed on anything at all.
Attention and learning.
Attention is important for successful learning because it plays a key role in memory and the mechanisms than ensure successful retention. However, the invisible nature of attention places teachers in a difficult position as they can never be certain of the extent to which their pupils are focussing on what they need to, even if their outward behaviour suggests they are. But what is going on when people ‘pay attention’ and how can teachers encourage pupils to remain focussed?
To get a clearer picture of what’s going on, we first need to investigate the concept of attention from the perspective of cognitive psychology where, like memory, many years have been spent testing, studying and formulating models to explain how it occurs and how important it is.
What is it to pay attention?
There are several definitions of attention but all highlight the process of selecting task-relevant information and minimising irrelevant information (Hanania & Smith, 2010). Attention is therefore concerned with selecting what is necessary at a particular moment and filtering out the competition. It’s clear why this ability is important in the classroom, not least because of its relationship to memory – if we don’t pay attention, we probably won’t remember very clearly.
But it’s not just about selection, it’s also about switching from one information stream to another, often quite rapidly. Humans are pretty adept at this despite cognitive limitations, after all, how many times do we find ourselves in a noisy crowded room and have still been able to focus on one specific conversation? As interesting, perhaps, is our ability to switch focus to another conversation, especially if we hear our name mentioned. Both these complex tasks have been encapsulated within what cognitive psychologist Colin Cherry referred to as the cocktail party problem (he proposed it in 1953, presumably when people attended cocktail parties) to highlight how people are exposed to multiple competing inputs but need to focus on just one.
This selective attention might seem pretty straightforward, yet attention is a limited resource and our own experiences would suggest that it’s very difficult to divide our attention between more than one task. When we do try and split our focus, cognitive resources have to be shared between tasks, resulting in poorer performance on all of them. Humans are pretty poor at multitasking, despite what people might tell you.
Early models of attention proposed that these limited cognitive resources resulted in a bottleneck whereby only information attended to is fully processed while unattended information is filtered out. Later models offered up a more flexible filter with all information being processed to some degree and only the attended to information selected for deeper processing (which is why we can sometimes get the gist of something we weren’t paying attention to). According to this latter model, proposed by cognitive psychologist Anne Triesman in the 1960s, information is analysed for certain properties, including sounds, syllable patterns, grammatical structure and meaning.
This analysis might explain a phenomenon seen in an experimental technique known as dichotic listening, whereby volunteers wear headphones and competing messages are played through the left and right ears. If the inputs differ in terms of language, then volunteers are likely to select the language they understand and filter out the one they don’t, even to the extent of being unable to identify the unselected message as being in a different language at all. Meaning, therefore, plays an important role in selective attention. But when volunteers are simply asked to attend to one message, they can’t recall the information from the unattended input, indicating that attention does require effort.
More recent notions of attention link it directly to working memory limitations. Working memory is considered to be short-term and necessary for holding information that requires manipulation in the current moment. Working memory is most evident when carrying out mental arithmetic or retaining instructions in mind until the actions have been completed. From a teaching and learning perspective, working memory is vital to pupil’s ability to comprehend both what the teacher is saying and for carrying out tasks related to it.
But working memory is limited and the amount of information it can hold at any one time is generally considered to be around four chunks (or pieces) of information (Cowan, 2000). This has important implications for the way we select the information to attend to. This capacity is lower than earlier believed, particularly in relation to Miller’s so called magic number 7 (plus or minus 2).
Klaus Oberauer, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Zurich, suggests that attention represents a collection of mechanisms that allows us to focus in on these chunks of information, either as a broad focus of attention representing the upper capacity of around four chunks, or narrow focus of attention where one chuck is selected at a time (Oberauer & Hein, 2012). A pupil might, therefore, attempt a mathematical equation requiring several stages by holding several parts of the problem in working memory (broad focus) but select only one chunk to complete a specific stage (narrow focus).
Attention is therefore necessary for carrying out tasks, but also for ensuring that information has a much better chance of retention in long-term memory. Information that isn’t fully attended to isn’t processed deeply and is likely to be forgotten very quickly.
But attention is also about maintaining focus over time and the length of time is also limited. Both working memory and attention are part of executive function, a group of higher-order cognitive skills that help people to perform other functions. Like all executive functions, attention follows a developmental trajectory, meaning that young children are much less adept at focussing their attention than older ones. Primary school children will, therefore, succumb to distractions more easily than teenagers and older adults are more skilled at focussing on a specific task. Certain individual differences may limit this, including anxiety, depression and conditions such as ADHD and Autistic Spectrum Disorder. However, other biological and physiological conditions also play a role, including quality of sleep and certain medications.
Identifying an average attention span is, therefore, difficult. Some studies have found that the attention span of undergraduate students is around ten to fifteen minutes, after which they become increasingly distracted and switch off (Bradbury, 2016). However, these studies are most often carried out in lecture theatres so generalising the finding to other environments such as the classroom isn’t possible. It could be that attention is also related to how relevant, important or interesting the information is, after all, teenagers are often able to maintain intense focus when playing video games or engaging in activities unrelated to school. So attention also influences motivation, which in turn relates to other factors including rewards, the perceived value of the task and whether or not the activity serves a wider goal.
Life is full of little distractions and we are often drawn to things that have little to do with the task in hand. It seems that with the advent of mobile phones and social media, these distractions have grown considerably. Some studies even suggest that simply having a mobile phone close to us impairs our ability to concentrate (Thornton, Faires, Robbins, & Rollins, 2014).
Jessica Mendoza of the University of Alabama and her co-researchers found that mobile phones do indeed impair the learning of students during lectures. However, for students scoring high on measures for nomophobia (the anxiety and discomfort that arises when people are separated from their phones) learning was impaired when their phones were taken away (Mendoza, Pody, Lee, Kim, & McDonough, 2018). But, once again, lecture halls aren’t the same as classrooms and nomophobia represents a very recent phenomenon, so we might wish to remain cautious of these findings.
Nevertheless, mobile phones certainly represent a major growing distraction in life and it makes sense that some schools have chosen to ban them outright while others have strict policies regarding their use.
Another interesting potential distraction is classroom displays. In a 2014 study, Anna Fisher and her co-researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that heavily decorated classrooms harmed concentration and learning (Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014). Also, researchers at Durham University in the UK found classroom displays to be particularly problematic for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (Hanley et al., 2017).
It’s worth noting that research into the impact of classroom displays is sparse and studies focus on primary school children. Because the ability to filter out distractions and remain attentive develops, older children will likely be less distracted by what is on the walls. Other factors will, no doubt, also play a role, such as positioning and content of displays, variables that are yet to be fully investigated.
Other sources of distraction might include idle chatter, noises in the corridor or events unfolding outside the classroom window. Not all distractions can be avoided and can help to nurture stronger distraction-avoidant strategies.
Phones and classroom displays represent external sources of distraction, but often distraction is fuelled by our thoughts. Mind-wandering might be a bigger problem than external distractions because it is more difficult to identify and, therefore, tackle. Mind-wandering occurs when our brains become detached from a task and our thoughts begin to drift. It has been estimated that people engage in mind wandering around fifty per cent of the time (Killingswroth & Gilbert, 2010) and recent neuroimaging studies have linked the phenomena to a cluster of brain regions that together make up what has been called the Default Mode Network, or DMN. The DMN activates when the brain is at rest or once we have completed a task, suggesting that this is the brain’s default setting. Mind-wandering isn’t all bad, however, and has been linked to creativity and problem solving (Fox & Beaty, 2019).
The ability to maintain focus and attention is a component of executive function, so initiatives designed to improve these higher-order cognitive skills will, consequently, help. These would include behavioural changes, such as enforcing routines and encouraging the formation of good study habits.
How teachers can improve attention can take several forms. Targeted interventions are marginally successful. Valentin Benzing at the University of Berne, for example, obtained encouraging results from the use of specially designed card games (Benzing et al., 2019). The games target three skills related to executive function and encourage behaviours such as turn-taking and concentration. Contemplative practices, including mindfulness and yoga, have also produced some promising results (e.g. Shapiro et al., 2014).
Some commercial products are even marketed as attention aids with the ability to help people focus for longer. One particular type of device that became highly popular a couple of years ago was the fidget spinner, much to the annoyance of classroom teachers. Despite the claims, a 2019 study found that the devices make no difference to attention and lead to lower performance on memory tests. The research was conducted on undergraduate students attending a video lecture but, as the team responsible indicate, these type of results have far-reaching consequences for all stages of learning and in multiple settings (Soares & Storm, 2019).
A particularly useful and simple way to get around attention limitations is to chunk lessons into smaller, manageable components. Attention spans are limited, so at some point, even the most experienced teacher is going to witness a dip in focus. How teachers deliver the material is important, but breaking down the structure of lessons will both help with problems of attention and issues related to working memory limitations.
One interesting finding is that when information is interleaved (mixed or shuffled with other information, rather than being presented in a block of similar items), people tend to pay more attention to the interleaved items. On the other hand, when the information is presented in a block, mind wandering increases (Firth, Rivers, & Boyle, 2019). This would indicate that by presenting different topics over a shorter period and inserting (or interleaving) these topics, teachers can reduce mind wandering and increase attention.
Doug Lemov, author of the highly popular Teach Like a Champion, advocates the use of technique generally referred to by the acronym SLANT (sit up, listen, ask and answer questions, nod your head, track the speaker). While there is little research evidence to support the technique at present, it does make intuitive sense. Preparing to pay attention by focussing on posture and explicitly instructing pupils to listen promotes positive learning behaviours and can trigger adaptive habits. Asking and answering questions provides teacher feedback, while head nodding and tracking can be thought of as proxies for attention. Whether or not nodding provides a useful proxy is perhaps more questionable and may simply be an indication of compliance in the absence of focus. Tracking the speaker may also divide attention rather than focus it, especially if tracking is required for extended periods. Some pupils may even find eye-contact difficult or uncomfortable and a few studies have discovered breaking eye-contact (or gaze aversion) is often necessary to reduce the load placed on limited cognitive resources (e.g. Doherty-Sneddon, Riby, & Whittle, 2012).
Knowing how attention works, including its relationship to other cognitive processes, can help teachers to work on strategies to enhance it. Furthermore, understanding the developmental aspects of attention will result in some strategies being effective for older learners by not younger ones. Limiting distractions is the easiest and most obvious course of action. As present, however, successfully identifying aspects of the classroom environment remains somewhat hindered by a lack of relevant research.
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