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Notes on Teaching and Learning

Maintaining Student Attention in the Classroom

October 28, 2022
ND Learning

By Jamie Trost

“Next up, we will be talking about penicillin. Penicillin is a type of beta-lactam antibiotics– so called because these types of antibiotics contain a beta-lactam ring in their chemical structure. Any questions?”

As you pause to scan the room, you notice an alarming number of students buried in their laptops. Some are even staring into space: Are they thinking about the laundry they accidentally left in their dryer or maybe an upcoming meeting they have after class? You wonder to yourself: How can I get their attention?

Even without technological distractions, students struggle to maintain attention during class periods. While research has consistently shown a decline in student attention after only 15 minutes of lecture, more recent investigations have suggested that breaks in attention increase over the course of a class period, happening as often as every 3-4 minutes by the end of a class period. Moreover, these numbers are not standard to every student. In fact, some students report short breaks in attention as early as 30 seconds into a class period. 

Attention lapses during class can have negative effects on retention and learning gains. Makes sense, right? However, students in these classrooms also report a false sense of confidence because they mistake merely sitting through a large amount of content with understanding that content well. It is critical to harmoniously match content retention, positive learning outcomes, and student perception. But how can we line these up?

Have no fear! A few tricks can help you attract and maintain student attention in your classroom.


Plan Wisely

When preparing your lessons, be intentional about maintaining student attention. Plan your course sessions with care, and enter each class period with specific ideas about student interaction, class structure, and time management. Consider the following questions: 

  •  What open-ended questions can I ask students about this material? How will these questions support student engagement?
  • How can I break up my lecture into smaller blocks of related information?
  • What class activities will I have this session? When will they take place, and for how long?

With a plan in place to engage your students, you will be well on your way to making your class time easy to pay attention to.


Stay Relevant

Many students ask themselves an important question when learning: Why does this matter to me? As an instructor, it is your job to make the material matter to your students. One way to determine the needs and interests of your students is to simply ask. Use a Google Form (or something similar) to survey students about what they are interested in, why they’ve chosen to take your course, and what they hope to get out of it. Read student responses, and as much as possible, integrate answers into your course material. 

In addition, use your class time to engage with students’ interests and experiences. “How might you apply this material in your own experience?” or “How does this align with your interests?” can both serve as a pause for student interaction and gives you insight into what is connecting with students and what can use more work. Bridges of relevance will help make it easier for students to care about the material they are learning, and thereby increase attention . 


Engage! Engage! Engage!

Employing active learning— that is, directly and actively involving students in course material— is a key part of student learning and has immense benefits within a classroom. This type of learning involves students in their own learning, increases student engagement and interaction, and helps students to achieve a deeper learning of course material. Even more, research supports that active learning enhances student success: One study demonstrated that students have been shown to perform better on course exams and were less likely to fail in courses incorporating active learning (Freeman et al., 2014). 

Building in frequent periods of engagement during a class period is beneficial to any learner and results in lower attention decline than lecture alone (Bunce et al., 2010). When teaching, plan a range of activities that ask your students to understand and apply the material they just learned. Class discussions, real-time polls, and group problem solving are all ways in which students can engage with material actively. Design activities that supplement your lecture, and present these to students intermittently throughout a class session. In addition to active learning, and when lecture is necessary, include small breaks at the end of sections (at least every 20 minutes), and if possible, allow students to get up and move around the classroom as much as possible. 

This will look different for every course. You might pause at the end of a section to ask students to contribute to a graffiti board or concept map; you might dedicate a course period to a fishbowl discussion about a larger topic; you might ask students to spend a few minutes on a think-pair-share activity to encourage reflection and critical thinking. All of these activities (and more) can be used to maintain student attention, identify gaps in student understanding, and support learning goals.


Vary Your Lecturing Style

As much as what we teach matters, we also must consider how we teach it. When you do need to lecture to your students, challenge yourself to be dynamic in your instruction. Learn and use your students’ names (if this seems overwhelming, use name tents). Change the level and tone of your voice to match the lecture material and move around the room as you speak. Present exciting material with excitement! And as stated above, while technology can be distracting, it can also be used to an instructor’s benefit. Use visuals and other media to engage your learners. Finally, make eye contact with your audience—this will be helpful not only in capturing attention, but also in gauging the overall attention levels of your class.

To quote Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” When used intentionally, the above strategies can elevate your classroom from a state of passive receiving to an environment rich with active engagement. By being an engaging and prepared instructor, relating course material to student interests, and incorporating active learning into your course design, you have the ability to maintain student attention within your classroom. These small elements will energize your learners and cultivate an environment of deep and effective learning. 


Additional Resources: 

Attention Spans During Lectures: 8 Seconds, 10 Minutes, or More?

Eight Ways to Maintain Your Learners’ Attention 

31 Student Engagement Strategies for Any College Course

Engaging Students on the First Day and Every Day

10 Ways to Cultivate Student Engagement in Higher Education

Academic Gains Through Improved Learning Effectiveness (AGILE)

Distracted by James Lang (see also: this related blog)



Bunce, D. M., Flens, E. A., & Neiles, K. Y. (2010). How long can students pay attention in class? A study of student attention decline using clickers. Journal of Chemical Education, 87(12), 1438-1443.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Knight, J. K., & Wood, W. B. (2005). Teaching more by lecturing less. Cell biology education, 4(4), 298-310.