If you’ve ever tried to input a bunch of material via the traditional lecture format in your classroom, you know what happens. At the beginning you have their attention. Things are going well. You’re presenting the material brilliantly. Kids are maybe even taking notes.
And then it happens. Suddenly your students “hit the wall” and their eyes begin to glaze over. “No!” you cry inwardly (maybe some of you even say this out loud), “Things were going so well!”
Yes, we’ve all been there, and it’s no fun. At that point, you have two options: (1) push ahead with your input or (2) pause and do something to get their attention back. OK, so really if you want them to learn the material, number 1 is not an option because anything you say after your students have hit the wall is not going to be processed anyway, so you’re just wasting your breath.
So it’s going to need to be option 2–pause and do something to get their attention back. And when it comes to getting your students’ attention, there’s one strategy that works better than anything else–and cognitive science has proven it. But before I share with you what that one thing is, let’s take a look at why the situation described above happens in the first place.
The Two Brain Limitations That Doom Long Stretches of Lecture
There are two basic physiological reasons why longer stretches of lecture (and really, longer stretches of new input via any medium) don’t work: working memory limitations and attentional fatigue.
As far as working memory goes, many studies over the years, starting with the famous “magical number seven” study by Miller (1956), have documented that the human brain has a limited amount of “space” in working memory. Miller’s conclusion was that, for teenagers and adults, the brain could hold no more than seven chunks of information (concepts, retrieved memories, facts, etc.) in conscious working memory at a time. When that maximum is reached, anything that we try to add simply kicks something else out. In addition, more recent studies have shown that Miller’s “magical number” is, if anything, optimistic. Most of these newer studies say that the accurate number is more like 3-5.
The second part of this double whammy has to do with the fact that the human brain has trouble maintaining focused attention on one input for long stretches of time. In fact, the human brain is designed to constantly scan the environment and shift attention to anything that could be deemed a threat or deemed more interesting than what it is currently doing. This attentional system–the stimulus-driven attentional system–is constantly at war with the focused attentional system that is trying to stay locked on one input (in this case, listening to you talk). And even if you’re doing a great job with your presentation, after a time, the focused attention system tires and your students shift their attention either outwardly to something else (they start looking out the window, for example, or start whispering to their neighbor) or inwardly (they start daydreaming).
The Two Steps You Can Take Today to Overcome These Two Limitations
So yes, holding your students’ attention while you input new material is a constant struggle. But it doesn’t have to be so hard. All you have to do is institute a couple of simple strategies regularly, and you will have your students eating that content out of the palm of your hand. Here are your two “must-do” strategies to make this happen:
1. Divide Your Input into “Chunks”
The two brain limitations discussed above are facts; they are biological constraints, and you can’t change them, no matter how much you would like to. So, you have to learn to work with them. Since your problem (students’ fading attention) stems from the fact that you are inputting too much information (more than their working memory buffers can hold) and for too long at a time (beyond their attentional limitations), the first thing you have to do is break your input into shorter chunks.
How long should these chunks be? Several cognitive scientists have weighed in on this issue, and there’s not complete agreement, but none of these experts suggest going longer than ten minutes at a time without pausing to let students process that information. John Medina sticks to this ten minute limit in his college lectures. In a Buzzfeed interview (Bazadona, 2016), Medina references psychologist Bill McKeachie, who found that attention peters out in ten minute cycles (McKeachie, 2014). In his book Brain Rules, Medina explains that he sticks to making one main point in each chunk of lecture, along with up to three sub-points.
And, for those of you who teach younger students, your chunks need to be even shorter. This is because both working memory limitations and focused attentional limitations are developmental. If you teach middle school students, think in terms of 8-10 minute chunks. If you teach upper elementary students, think in terms of 6-8 minutes. And if you teach primary grades students, you should probably not go over five minutes at a time.
2. Reset the Clock with an ECS
So, let’s say you’ve resolved to chunk your lectures as suggested above. What do you do to reset your students’ attentional clocks so they can focus again on your next chunk of input? Well, the first thing is to give your students a chance to process what you’ve just inputted. You can have them write about the content, talk about it with a partner, make a personal connection to the content, or whatever is most appropriate for them to make personal meaning of the content they just heard. Giving students a chance to process this material allows them to clear their working memory buffers of the material and sets them up for new input.
But to really hook them and get their attention focused back on you so you can do more input, you will want to do something to grab them emotionally–by using what cognitive scientists call an ECS, short for “emotionally competent stimulus.” To quote Medina, “Turns out the human brain loves content laden with emotional overtones, especially if social interactions are involved….Attention lags when there are too little ECS in the content stream” (Bazadona, 2016). Getting students emotionally engaged with a topic has been shown in a number of studies to be the best way to hook them and reset their attentional clocks.
How do you go about using emotionally competent stimuli in your lessons? The best way is probably to use them as “hooks” to get students interested in the next chunk of input to come. So, let’s say that you just finished one chunk of lecture, and you’ve just given your students a couple of minutes to process that information in some way. Now, you need to hook them so they will be interested in the next chunk. You need to find some way to get their emotions engaged with that content.
There are a number of ways to do this. You could state an amazing statistic or fact that awes them, makes them wonder, or piques their curiosity. You could make a statement that challenges their current beliefs (cognitive dissonance). You could take a stand on one side or the other of a controversial issue. You could tell a humorous, grisly, shocking, or inspirational story. All of these approaches can work well to get your students’ emotional juices flowing.
Then have them write or talk about the ECS briefly. You may want to capture their thoughts on chart paper, the computer, or the SMART Board to refer to later. Now they’re hooked. They want to know more. Their attentional clocks are reset, and they’re ready to go along with you for your next chunk of input…that is, until their attention starts to wane again. But never fear. You now know what to do to get them going again. Just follow the process outlined here. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas about effective presentation strategies, especially stories from your own classroom. Just e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bazadona, D. (March 22, 2016). The science of snackable: 6 scientific reasons your brain loves listicles. BuzzFeed. www.huffingtonpost.com/damian-bazadona/the-science-of-snackable-_b_9518162.html.
McKeachie, W. J., & Svinicki, M. D. (2014). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. 14th Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Miller, G. (1956). The magic number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The Psychological Review, 63: 81-97.