On Attention Spans

So here’s another reflection from OETC ’16 this past week.

Thursday morning’s general session speaker was Dr. Freeman Hrabowski. He said a lot of things that really struck a chord (and opening with a quote from Maya Angelou is always good), but one thing that really really impacted a lot of listeners there was about how long college students are engaged in a lesson before they start to fade.

Eight minutes.

A college student generally focuses on a lesson for eight minutes before they start to fade.

I can see that. I feel the same way about staff meetings if they are the kind where someone talks and talks and talks at you. You stop paying attention to what’s being said and start thinking, “I could be grading right now…. couldn’t this have just been sent in an email?… I wonder what I should cook for dinner….”

(This year our school district has been doing that less and less, thank goodness, but I think everyone has been to that kind of meeting at some point or other.)

Anyway. If a college student only focuses on a lesson for eight minutes before they start disengaging, how long is it for a high schooler? A middle schooler? An elementary schooler?

This is something big for me, since I teach grades one through three currently. Kids have a hard time focusing for the same amounts of time as adults. Look at Sesame Street – their skits and songs and sketches are always under five minutes, and many clock in under sixty seconds. Many programs pitched towards younger kids do similarly — they may take up a standard thirty-minute block of programming, but they divvy it up into smaller chunks.

There’s also the interactive element. Children are encouraged to participate in their TV programs by reading along; singing along; doing call and response, etc. That helps keep kids engaged, at least until the next commercial break.

As a technology teacher, I see this in a lot of popular resources as well. For example, my students love Sumdog.com for its math games. The games are almost like short sprints, never lasting more than a few minutes at a time. The videos and lessons put forth by Khan Academy never last for more than a few minutes either (at least not the ones aimed at third grade and below). Even then, I often see students only watch part of a video and not the whole thing. (I feel that’s a plus — why watch more when the concept clicked after just a little bit?)

I already try to “chunk” my directions and routines, but now when I look at resources and create activities and projects, I am going to think about duration of student engagement. I want students to build up academic stamina over time, but in order to get them there, I have to start by meeting them where they’re at in terms of attention span.

The older dog in this clip knows what I’m talking about.

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