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The Truth about Decreasing Attention Spans in University Students

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It’s a widely held belief that students have short attention spans – somewhere between 10-15 minutes long. However, if we look at some of the scientific studies conducted over the last 15 years, we can see that there is little evidence to support this claim.

In 2007, psychologists Karen Wilson and James H. Korn discovered that student note-taking generally declines over the course of a lecture, but found no evidence of a consistent 10-15 minute attention span. Indeed, they concluded that, “While there may be a pattern of decline in student attention during a lecture, the exact length of the average attention span wasn’t determined.”

Another study found that attention lapses varied at different points during a one-hour lecture. After an initial “settling in” period, observers noted breaks in attention at 10-18 minutes into the lecture. By the end, breaks were more frequent, occurring every 3-4 minutes. These findings do not offer definitive proof that students can only concentrate for 10-15 minutes at a time, however.

In 2010, researchers surveyed chemistry students in three different classes, all taught via different methods. The students were asked to report breaks in their attention using a clicker, so the scientists could study students’ attention span when exposed to different teaching styles. The results of this experiment showed that lapses in attention actually occur more frequently than the 10–15 minute theory suggests, with short breaks in attention occurring at 30 seconds, four to five minutes, seven to nine minutes, and so on throughout the lecture.

Furthermore, this research shows a link between interactive learning styles and the length of a student’s attention span. Fewer breaks occurred during discussions and demonstrations than during lecture periods, leading the scientists to conclude that, “Active learning methods may have ‘dual benefits’: engaging student attention during a segment, and refreshing attention immediately after a segment”.

The Impact of Technology

While many teachers believe that new technologies have created an easily distracted generation of students with short attention spans, technology is still generally seen as a positive force in the education sector. According to a survey carried out by Pew Research, nearly 75% of teachers believe that the internet and search engines has a “mostly positive” impact on student research skills. In one study, medical students at the University of California reported scoring 23% higher on their exams after being given tablets to use in class.

Assistant director for research at Pew, Kristen Purcell, reflected on these findings: “What we’re labelling as ‘distraction’, some see as a failure of adults to see how these kids process information. They’re not saying distraction is good but that the label of ‘distraction’ is a judgment of this generation.”

In order to mitigate the risk of distraction, teachers have to reevaluate how they are using technology to teach their students.

However, as much as technology can be used as an effective learning tool inside and outside the classroom, there’s no denying that one of the biggest challenges faced by educators today is the distraction posed by social media. Students are distracted by their phones during class, and even without that distraction, the time they spend on social media outside the classroom has an impact on their attention spans.

Research carried out by MIT found that the ideal length for an instructional video is less than six minutes long. So, when they’re used to absorbing information in bite-size pieces online, how can you keep your students interested all the way through an hour-long lecture?

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How to Keep Your Students Engaged

Here are our top three tips on how to keep your students engaged, as verified by experts in the field of education:

1. Small class sizes

Motivation is key to keeping your students engaged. You need to give them a reason to pay attention in your classes. Of course, it’s not easy to maintain the interest of an entire class with 20+ students in it. Smaller class sizes allow for more individualized instruction, which promotes hands-on learning and has been proven to increase engagement and results. At EU Business School, we limit class sizes and use the dynamic case study method, which encourages students to engage with the theories they’re learning by applying them to real-world business situations.

To find out more about the advantages of small class sizes in a business school, take a look at our blog.

2. Use a variety of teaching methods

Students learn more when teaching is delivered through different types of media.

“We are all visual learners, and we are all auditory learners, not just some of us. Laboratory studies reveal that we all learn when the inputs we experience are multi-modal or conveyed through different media” (Hattie & Yates, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, 2014).

To capture the attention of your class, it’s important to incorporate different styles of learning, e.g., visual, aural, kinaesthetic, etc. when you are teaching.

The Truth about Decreasing Attention Spans in University Students

3. Be clear about your expectations

Active participation in class demonstrates an understanding and engagement with the learning materials. However, when wanting to make a good impression on the instructor, students may be hesitant to speak up, for fear of getting the answer wrong. This can get in the way of discussion-based learning, which works best when everyone feels confident enough to share their ideas.

To get all your students talking, it’s important to create a safe and open classroom environment and set your expectations from day one. Here are some ideas for how you can start the discussion and keep it going:

Call on students. If you are going to call on students, make it clear, so no one’s caught off guard. Give the individual a chance to answer, and encourage them to have a go, even if they’re not sure. If someone gets stuck, open the question up to the floor to generate a discussion.

Eliminate barriers. The days when instructors taught from behind desks or podiums are largely behind us. By having a physical barrier between you and your class, you are also creating a psychological barrier to discussions. To create a culture of openness in your classroom, come out from behind your desk and sit among your students. This will make learning feel more like a conversation and encourage everyone to join in.

At EU Business School, we believe in a combination of lecture and discussion-based teaching. We frequently invite guest speakers who are leaders in their fields to come and share their insights on current industry trends with our students – there’s always something to catch our students’ attention!

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