Sorry, what was that again? The problem of a limited attention span, technology-enabled

A former colleague with whom I worked in another institution a good few years ago told me recently that, about half way through a lecture, he had asked his class a question. No one responded. By this I don’t just mean that no answer was offered; there wasn’t even much evidence that the students were aware that a question had been asked of them. In fact, it turned out they were almost all focusing on their phones and tablets, because someone was live-tweeting an event in which they all had an interest. My friend suddenly realised he was talking to himself.

In this case there may have been a particular reason for the student inattention, but even in other circumstances it has become difficult to know how long students will focus on the teaching. A few years ago the BBC reported on a survey that had found that ‘the average length of time a student could concentrate for in lectures was 10 minutes’. A more recent American study had this finding:

‘The researchers observed a pattern in which the first spike in reported attention lapses occurred just 30 seconds into a lecture segment, likely reflecting the same “settling-in” period of disruption… The next consistent spike in reported attention lapses occurred at 4.5 to 5.5 minutes into the lecture, followed by another spike at 7 to 9 minutes, and then another at 9 to 10 minutes into the lecture. This waxing-and-waning pattern continued throughout the lecture, with attention lapses occurring more frequently as the lecture progressed. By the end of the lecture, lapses occurred about every two minutes.’

If this pattern of attention and lapses is typical, then we would have to ask serious questions about the effectiveness of lecture-style teaching. If in addition we factor in the impact of personal technology such as smartphones and the ease with which they provide nearly indetectable access to something other than what is going on in the classroom, we would have to wonder about the possibility of significant learning taking place at all in such settings. Part of the answer is to have as much ‘active learning’ as possible: when students are asked to do something, the evidence is that they pay more attention. Part of it is probably also related to the communication skills of the teacher. But overall we need to accept that traditional teaching may not engage students much these days, and we must ensure that we employ an active assessment of pedagogy that never assumes we must always continue to do what we did before.

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8 Comments on “Sorry, what was that again? The problem of a limited attention span, technology-enabled”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Assuming your friend is correct in that instance you’d have to say he was being a bit disingenuous. The way I remember lectures going was with a statement then 50 mins of listening and note taking. Now given that most people can’t hand write faster than speech you were always writing a different thing to what you were hearing. If you then introduce someone asking if what was said was understood and expecting some reasoning in the answer all I can say is good luck on that.
    If on the other hand a reading list was provided and each lecture was a Socratic probe, then fine. There you can expect a return. The usual way lectures go, I doubt if asked their own name they could answer without thinking about it.

  2. Greg Foley Says:

    Ferdinand, As someone who rarely lectures for more than half of the allotted time, the rest of the time given over to problem solving, I agree with much of what you’re saying. But it’s easy for me to say that because I teach engineering to quite small classes. I know the students and can establish a decent rapport with them.

    But once the class sizes go above about 50, things are not so simple. My view is that there is no single answer to questions like this and the best approach will tend to be discipline-dependent.

  3. cormac Says:

    I have a solution for this, for large and small classes. As I go through a derivation or problem on the overhead or blackboard, each student has to attempt to has to help me write the next line, going left to right around the room. Occasionally, a student hasn’t a clue, and we go over the basics again – the funny thing is the students themselves seem to enjoy this method, keeps them awake I guess

  4. cormac Says:

    P.S. Of course, that method only works for some subjects…with more descriptive courses I ask each student a question before the next paragraph..

  5. anna notaro Says:

    *If this pattern of attention and lapses is typical, then we would have to ask serious questions about the effectiveness of lecture-style teaching.*

    We can still ask serious questions about the effectiveness of lecture style teaching, however the pattern of attention described here is by no means *typical*, in fact if one reads the article in full an acknowledgement of the limitation of such study is clearly indicated, and actually what is apparent is the impossibility to determine exactly the length of average attention span.

    PS. following the tags of most recent posts one cannot help noting the recurrence of same topics, which is interesting and frustrating in equal measure.

    • Greg Foley Says:

      There’s a book by Graham Nuthall called the ‘Hidden Lives of Learners’ that is probably relevant to this discussion. Haven’t read it I confess but I think it is well regarded.


  6. Learning concentration is part of the learning process at this level. To cater to low levels brought with them would be like not correcting basic mistakes in grammar, say?

  7. Eddie Says:

    Simple. This is called addiction. The younger ” digital natives” are raised among technological gadgets, no surprise there. But many others, much older, and in responsible positions are doing the same in their meetings.


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