Thursday, May 20, 2021

In the Homestretch of the School Year, Keep Students’ Attention

As we approach the end of a school year like no other, it’s fitting that teachers take time to congratulations themselves—and their students—for persevering during the challenging circumstances of remote and/or socially distanced learning. In fact, there is no better time than May or June for giving out academic kudos. Graduations and awards assemblies—even if conducted remotely—provide the opportunity to recognize academic accomplishments that are well worth celebrating.

If your academic year is not quite over yet, encourage your students not to lose focus in the homestretch. Their minds may be on summer break—as they look forward to days spent away from classrooms or computers—but this is a time when the need to capture and keep the brain’s attention may be particularly important. Year-end reviews and testing will reinforce what students need to retain when school resumes in just a few months’ time.

How to Stay Focused

Fortunately, the human brain has an amazing capacity to wield a potent cognitive strategy: selective attention. When we consciously focus our attention on something, we bring the power of the prefrontal cortex to this endeavor.

By honing our ability to focus attention at will, we can more effectively screen out two types of distractions:

  1. Input through our sensory organs, and
  2. Our emotional responses.

Distractions via sensory input may be the easier of the two to block, according to Daniel Goleman in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. As educators, we may tend to notice the impact of sights, sounds, and touch points that draw students' focus away from lessons and learning activities. But while all of the sensory stimulations in the environment are readily obvious, emotions can be even “louder” when it comes to diverting attention in unwanted directions and making it hard to focus on learning.

Like any other skill, students can develop their attention for learning through regular practice and training. Introduce the subject of attention by asking students to share examples of being so focused on an activity that they've blocked out distractions around them, such as getting lost in a good book or movie, practicing the piano, or perfecting their jump shot in basketball. In the same way, they can purposefully focus their attention on learning, and shift their attention from one learning task to another throughout the school day.

Five Strategies of CRAVE

In our book BrainSMART: 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning, we suggest the acronym CRAVE as a way to remember five strategies for keeping students’ attention focused on learning:

  1. Build curiosity for learning with “teasers” that get students interested in a lesson.
  2. Look for ways to make lessons relevant to students' lives.
  3. Ask questions to engage students in learning and inquiry.
  4. Remember that variety is the spice of attention—a mix of learning activities helps keep students engaged.
  5. Evoke emotions. Just as emotions can be distracting, they can also be used to enhance attention by making a lesson or learning activity more interesting.

Advertisers use these same strategies to grab consumers' attention, so you might find inspiration for ways to keep your students’ attention by studying TV ads or the billboards around town. Keep this in mind as you guide students to improve their selective attention: The first step toward learning is paying attention.

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