TALK ABOUT TEACHING AND LEARNING
the Shadow of the Valley How
to Retain Attention in the Classroom
Larry M. Robbins
Human attention tends to wander; students are human; therefore,
students' attention will wander.
Here are some strategies to prevent wandering and to increase
are well aware when student attention wanders, and they apply
various strategies to maintain interest.
Careful planning of each section or time "module" of
a class will focus students on the task at hand. One of the
primary causes of wandering attention and even boredom is density
of material--too many major topics, too many complex PowerPoint
slides and too many examples result in information overload.
Students then tend to disengage; and even after they finish
the crossword puzzle, they don't tune back in.
For teachers and students, poor
preparation creates a bad connection in the learning process.
Students who have finished the assigned readings and homework
will often have something to say. Those who aren't prepared
can certainly listen attentively (we hope), but they will have
much more information to process than if they have read primary
or supporting material in advance.
In all fairness,
and recognizing the human condition, the time of day can
also contribute to wandering
attention. Most teachers whose classes begin after lunch cannot
help but notice the number of glazed eyes or count the heads
on desks. Metabolism dominates here, but students should still
make an effort to stay engaged, and teachers should employ
a variety of strategies to create and maintain a high level
of interest. Early classes can also be soporific. (The definition
of "early" can range from nine a.m. to noon or beyond.) However,
students who sign up for early classes usually know what they
are getting into. Whatever the time, after the initial invigoration
of starting a new class day, interest wanes, especially if
the only thing students have to do is listen.
cognition and retention has shown that any class period or "learning episode" has periods of "prime-time" and "down-time" (Sousa, How
the Brain Learns, 1995, Bligh, What's the Use of Lectures?,
2000). Prime-time, when students are at their sharpest (usually
the first ten to fifteen minutes of a class), is appropriate
for introducing new information or coming to closure on old
Sousa, "practice is appropriate
for the down-time segment"--the valley that occurs after the
introduction of new material. Practice can include analytical
or evaluative questions such as: "How do the medical malpractice
laws affect health care?" "Will the Governor's new proposals improve health
care?" Or practice can mean simulations, case analyses, class
presentations, etc. Questions and answers are also appropriate
for the "down-time" segment of a class because they enable
students to demonstrate their knowledge and their ability to
apply knowledge to a new situation.
Not all questions
need to be answered immediately. A
rhetorical question can stimulate thinking by causing students
to formulate an answer and focusing them on a particular topic.
However, teachers who ask too many rhetorical questions can
create barriers to learning because students are prevented
from answering. Turning a rhetorical question into an actual question
is an effective way to test comprehension or to encourage interactive
of any variety encourage collaboration in the learning process.
can, of course, demotivate. When asked the following double
question--"What led to the stock market crash, and how can we
prevent this from happening again?"--students could respond, "which
question do you want us to answer?"
Taken one at a time, each of these questions
can stimulate the critical thinking skills of analysis, synthesis
of engaging students is to facilitate a discussion that enables
all students to participate. Discussion
may not be the best strategy in a Statistics course, but in
other courses a discussion on a general topic will call on
students to demonstrate knowledge, while enabling them to achieve
a sense of "personal discovery." Discussions might be stimulated
by a question: "What should the priorities of the new president
be?" or a statement, "The war in . . . (fill in the blank)
is just and moral." A danger of discussions, however,
is that they often become lectures in disguise if teachers
dominate by implying their own bias or giving too much information.
can also take the form of a debate. When students prepare
to debate, they sharpen their own critical
abilities and stimulate critical response from those who are
only observers. Again, not all courses are appropriate for
debate, but in the realm of academic discourse much is and
should be debatable. Bringing the students into "the debate" enriches
learning by causing them to test and defend their assertions.
Student activity in general can make the journey
through the shadow of the valley proceed more directly. Strategies
such as dyads, small group discussion in class or short and
well-prepared reports by students will create a context for
learning that is student-centered. The teacher still retains
the responsibility of determining the general learning outcome
and of preventing student activities from being a waste of
time, but strategies other than or in addition to lecturing
can promote learning.
If a teacher
determines that a "standard lecture" is
still the best strategy, student interest can be stimulated
in at least three ways. First, change your voice--emphasize
verbs when you want to emphasize action; emphasize nouns
when you want to emphasize the result of an action.
Second, give a concrete example that everyone can understand--"let
me explain what a 'dent-puller' is." Third, and most important,
provide internal summaries. When you distill a discussion--"so
we have covered the three main methods of controlling stage
fright: preparation, eye contact, breathing"--students will
pay close attention, often writing down the summary.
and learning require strategies. For the teacher, building-in
the concept of "practice" (encouraging
students to verbalize and support their ideas) is a strategy
for maintaining interest and attention. Students who develop
the skills of personal discovery are more likely to retain
their knowledge because they will gain a sense of intellectual
ownership. When the process of learning becomes collaborative,
students and teachers proceed together on a well-defined course
through the "shadow of the valley."
Larry M. Robbins is the Director of the SAS
Center for Teaching
essay continues the series that was revived earlier this
semester and had initially begun in the fall of 1994 as
the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and
the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching. See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for
the previous essays.