“Can I have your attention please?” “Learners, Listen up!” “Please focus your attention on the ________.” Sound familiar? Educators ask for attention from learners all day long, and for good reason. Attention plays a critical factor in learning! Without attention, learners cannot comprehend, and without comprehension, they cannot retain information. In a nutshell, attention is what makes or breaks a learning experience. Defined, attention is the energy required to process incoming information. There are three physical elements of attention that are critical to instruction. Attention is cyclic, limited, and selective.
Attention is cyclic. Attention cycles between various states of focus. Alpha and beta states are most important to learning. Alpha is a state of being alert and focused. It is commonly referred to as FLOW state. Beta is a multi-tasking state where attention is divide among multiple topics. Split attention effect occurs attention is split between two or more mutually important sources. Vulnerable learners often split attention between classroom lessons and critical life conditions on any given day.
Attention is limited. Attention span is limited. An individual cannot pay ‘focused’ attention for long periods of time without redirection. Research indicates that attention must be ‘captured’ in the first 8 seconds of information exposure. Additionally, learners can pay ‘focused’ attention for about their age in minutes. A three-year old, therefore, can pay ‘focused’ attention for about 3 minutes. An 18-year old can pay attention for about 18 minutes. Attention span peaks at about 21 minutes regardless of age. Factors such as stress, nutrition, substance abuse, and sleep can negatively impact focus and therefore a 15-minute estimate may be more accurate estimate for vulnerable learner populations. Research indicates that online attention span is 2-5 minutes. This has implications for vulnerable learner populations that utilize computer based instruction.
Attention is selective. The brain is ‘hard-wired’ to pay attention to certain stimuli. The limbic system monitors stimuli in a learners’ environment and priorities incoming information according to safety and self-preservation needs. Stimuli that present a threat to safety (such as an alarm) and stimuli that are emotionally ‘charged’ (an argument) will take priority over raw data and information. The daily lives of vulnerable learners are often filled with issues of safety, self-preservation, and dramatic interaction. This context often makes it difficult for learners to ‘focus’ during classroom instruction.
Although the brain is ‘hard-wired’ to pay attention to certain stimuli, focus is a selective and self-regulated behavior. Teaching learners how to self regulate and focus their attention through state management strategies such as activators and extenders helps learner independently manage their attention states.
Two tools for self-regulation:
These self-regulation tools can be taught directly to learners, along with information on the attention cycle.
FLOW: When they recognize themselves suffering from split attention effect, they could use FLOW steps to re-focus their attention on learning tasks:
Find the speaker or screen
Lean body forward (no slouching, no head on desk.)
Why did I diffuse?
SCREEN: Learners can use SCREEN to divide their learning tasks into digestible chunks, articulate the content in own words, and check for understanding. (Although especially effective when learning via technology, SCREEN can be used during any independent learning task.)
Create a visual
Rephrase in their own words
Narrate content to another (or self)