Slay the Beast!

If we can’t keep the attention of the zombie learner, we have no hope of getting off the shot to the head. Brain Rule #4 is critical for all teachers.

4. We don’t pay attention to boring things.

If our students are texting, sleeping, or otherwise occupied, there is no hope that we will be able to transmit the information in the course. Without their attention, the communication channel is broken.

So how long do we have before their attention begins to wander? John Medina relates several studies that indicate that you have about 10 minutes before their brains check out. This applies to even the best lecturers. Unless we do something to regain their attention, we’ll lose them to the undead!

Several years ago I decided to see how accurate this statement was. The first day of class should be a day where I have no problem keeping their attention. All of the students are brimming with enthusiasm. The content I deliver is incredibly important…what are the course policies and how will their learning be assessed? On this particular first day in College Algebra, I delivered my typical first day material. As I did, I watched my audience for “tells”. These are the behaviors that indicate that they are no longer paying complete attention to what I am saying. Things like looking at their cell phone, glancing at their watch or the clock in the classroom, or looking at the attractive coed in the row in front of them.

After about eleven minutes, one student glanced twice over their shoulder to check the time on the clock. Sure enough, I had lost that students attention! I needed to do something to regain that attention. In fact, every time I drone on for more than ten minutes, I see these signs in my students. And when I deliver presentations at conferences, I see the same signs…the zombies are everywhere.

Medina designs his lectures with four principles in mind.

1. Emotions get our attention.

I am not exactly the best at remembering details of past events. Several years ago while on vacation in Alaska, I was attacked in a campground as I slept. The attack was very traumatic…waking up with someone screaming at you outside your tent definitely stirs many emotions. I was tackled outside my tent by several assailants, but managed to break free. To this day, I can remember every detail of this episode…including how the gravel felt on my bare feet as I outran my attackers.

Medina enfuses emotion into his lectures. This helps keep their attention and allows information to flow in the communication channel between the teacher and the learner. However, what is emotion? Do you need to relay traumatic life changing events? Funny stories? Medina suggests that all is needed is emotional “arousal”. He points to this commercial as being perfect for its ability to keep the audiences attention.

2. Meaning before details.

For a small number of students, it is enough for me to simply explain how to calculate slope and they pay attention to what I am saying. The vast majority could care less about slope unless they know how they can use it…what it really means in their everyday life.

Medina says:

The more a learner focuses on the meaning of the presented information, the more elaborately the encoding is processed. This process is so obvious that it is easy to miss. What it means is this: When you are trying to drive a piece of information into your brain’s memory systems, make sure you understand what that information means. If you are trying to drive information into someone else’s brain, make sure they know what it means.

If I can also explain how slope relates to health insurance plans or how fast college costs are rising, it is easier to keep their attention and encode the details.

3. The brain cannot multitask.

This is hard to sell to students. Most of them seem to be able to listen to music, text message, do homework, chew gum…all at the same time. In fact, I am sure each of you is able to carry out many tasks like walking and talking at the same time. But are these tasks that require your full attention?

When we try to do several tasks simultaneously that require our attention, we make more errors and it takes us longer to do them. So if you are texting and watching my brilliant lecture, you will make more errors in your text message and make errors in learning the content. Attention needs to be focused on one thing at a time.

4. The brain needs a break.

The attention span of human beings under good conditions is ten minutes. For college students in a classroom or online students at their home or Starbucks, it is probably less. To account for this span, we need to regain their attention with narratives that are rich in emotion.

Many social science instructors are well versed with this technique. I sat in on a psychology lecture in Nichole Wilson’s class several years ago. Whenever she would relate case studies about abnormal psychology or psychiatric disorders, she grabbed her audience’s attention. They volunteered their own experiences showing that they were into what she was relating. Now that she had their attention, she could continue with her lecture knowing the communication channel was open again. Unfortunately for me, students don’t seem to have the same interest in abnormal mathematical operations that they do for schizophrenia.

These four principles can help us to design lectures that are more engaging to our students. In my next post, I’ll relate the techniques I use to keep the attention of my students.