4 Ways to Get–and Keep–Students’ Attention

by Annie Murphy Paul, Time Magazine, 7/25/12

A professor of physics education at Kennesaw State University in Georgia reported the results of a pilot study using special glasses that track where and how long wearers direct their gaze.

After analyzing the data produced by undergraduates who wore the glasses during lectures, Professor David Rosengrant concluded that it was not the case, as many teachers believe, that students were most engaged for the first 15 minutes or so of class….

Rather, he said, student engagement ebbed and flowed over the course of the 70-minute lecture, and spiked whenever the professor used humor, stood close to the student, or talked about material that was not included in the PowerPoint presentation.

Rosengrant also determined that cell phones and the web — especially Facebook — were the greatest obstacles to maintaining students’ engagement in the classroom.

Interesting, but hardly revelatory…. The irony is that, after many years of investigation, scientists already have a good idea of what captures the attention of an audience….

1. Stimulate curiosity. “Sometimes I think that we, as teachers, are so eager to get to the answers that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question,” notes Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia. “But it’s the question that piques people’s interest. Being told an answer doesn’t do anything for you.” Take the information you want your audience to know by the end and frame a question that will direct your listeners toward that answer.

2. Introduce change and surprise. Human beings quickly become habituated to the status quo. When something in our environment shifts, however, we start paying attention again. A good rule of thumb is to switch things up every 15 minutes or so — tell a joke or a story, show a picture, address your topic in a different way.

3. Stress relevance and concreteness. The human mind can’t handle too much abstraction. Bring your ideas down to earth by explaining how they connect to your listeners’ lives, and by embedding sensory details — what things look, sound, feel and taste like — into your account.

4. Tell stories. Researchers who study human cognition say that stories are “psychologically privileged” — that is, our minds treat them differently than other kinds of information. We understand them better, remember them more accurately, and find them more engaging. When planning your presentation, think about how to capture your ideas in a narrative. And remember, good stories usually have strong characters, a conflict — the main character can’t get what he wants — and complications on the way to overcoming that conflict.

Annie Murphy Paul writes a weekly column for Time and is the author of the forthcoming book, How to Be Brilliant.

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