F=m…m…mmm what’s for dinner?

F=m…m…mmm what’s for dinner?

In many classes that I took during my undergraduate career, I found myself paying close attention to what the instructor said, taking notes, organizing, color coding ideas, and following along with the instructor. And that usually lasted about 15 minutes.

Then my mind would wander. I would think about something else – my weekend plans, other homework, or just how much time was left in the class. I consider myself a pretty good student, but paying attention for 50, 75, or sometimes 180 minutes (yes 180 minutes!) straight can be pretty challenging.

In models of attention, which describe how we select information to pay attention to, only certain information makes it to the point where it is processed and stored in memory.

In Broadbent’s Filter model, sensory inputs are filtered early and only a subset of those inputs are then processed and make it to working memory. There are a lot of inputs around us, and there are a lot of opportunities for distractions as well. So how do we, as educators, help students keep their attention on what we want them to focus on?

Before I get to that ever important question, I want to go over a few more things. There are multiple models of attention, not just the one introduced above. And these models differ in where this filter is, the one that only lets certain inputs through, in the process of attention. These differing views are known as early selection models of attention and late selection models of attention. In early selection models of attention (like Broadbent’s filter model above), certain inputs are not processed because they are filtered out early. In late selection models of attention, inputs are assumed to be processed and then the information is filtered after it is processed.

So why does this matter? In these models, an individual receives many inputs, and only some of those inputs are processed and make their way to our memory. And our attention is affected by many different things, including our emotions, whether we are multitasking, the timing of a given task or activity, and our interests. So we have to remember this when presenting information to our students.

So despite your thoughts on when information is processed, we have this idea that only a certain amount of the inputs received are processed and then become available in our working memory. So, going back to my earlier question, how do we as educators help students keep their attention on what we want them to pay attention to?

Here are a few ideas to get started.

  • Try to make things interesting. Incorporate a real world example. Ask an interesting question that would be relevant to students. Connect the material in class to things that happen outside of the classroom walls.
  • Switch modes periodically. When I talk about modes, I am talking about the way that material is delivered. So lecture for 15 minutes. Then have students do an activity where they talk to their neighbor. Then ask a quiz question. Then lecture for another short portion. Then work a problem. Whatever you do, try to mix it up.
  • Highlight important parts of the material or problem. If you want students to focus on one part of the problem that makes that problem unique, you can point that out.
  • Have students select projects or problems that are interesting to them. It is easier to remain attentive if you are working on something that is of interest to you.

For  more information, check out these references:

  • Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1971). The control processes of short-term memory. Stanford: Stanford University.
  • Broadbent, D (1958). Perception and Communication. London: Pergamon Press.
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