You might think that when students are sitting quietly and looking at you, you have their undivided attention. Let me tell you something you’ve probably figured out already. Students can be looking dead in your face and not paying a bit of attention to what you are saying. Just because you have their eyes doesn’t mean that you have their brains. In fact, the average attention span for listening to a lecture is commensurate with the age of a student. For example, a 6-year-old appears able to listen without active engagement for about 6 minutes, a 12-year-old for 12 minutes, and so forth. However, the maximum amount of time, even for an adult, is approximately 20 minutes. After that time, without active engagement, the brain has simply had enough.
Even within the aforementioned time parameters, teachers stand a better chance of capturing students’ attention if they utilize any one of four hooks for the brain: need, novelty, meaning, or emotion.
Have you ever learned something because you simply needed to know it? Need is a useful way of getting and keeping the brain’s attention. People learn what they need to know when they need to know it. Most human beings today don’t even see the need to memorize telephone numbers if those numbers can be programmed into their cell phones. They will memorize a number when the information cannot be retrieved any other way. Convince students that they need the information you are teaching, and they will more than likely pay attention to it.
If need will not work for your lesson, the next hook is novelty. The brain also pays attention to things that are new or different. Novelty is a motivator that can be easily incorporated into a teacher’s lessons. Why not add a little novelty into your lessons each day so that students never know exactly what to expect in your lesson presentation? In fact, while your classroom rituals and procedures should remain constant, your lesson should not. The brain-compatible strategies outlined in my book Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites should serve as vehicles for a never-ending supply of novelty.
A third way to gain students’ attention is to connect the learning to real life. It stands to reason that if the brain was meant to survive in the real world, then the closer a teacher can get the instruction to the real world, the more memorable it becomes. When students can see the connection between what you are teaching and their world, attention is increased. However, you have to know something about your students’ lives to appropriately connect what you are teaching to their world.
The final motivator for capturing attention is emotion. Of all four, it is possibly the most powerful. Anything that happened in the world or in your personal life that was filled with emotion tends to be unforgettable. If you were in the classroom of a teacher you did not like, you will never forget being in his or her room, but you will not remember the content. Your brain was in survival mode, and when the brain is under threat, memory is compromised. Teaching with a passion or love for your content also emotionally connects you with students and connects students to the lesson. Do you remember teachers who were so enthusiastic about their content that their enthusiasm became contagious? Emotion, then, becomes a powerful motivator. While you may be able to do little to reduce the stresses of your students’ personal lives, your classroom might be the one bright spot in their otherwise dismal day. Make your classroom a positive place to be emotionally, and the learning will follow.
What the Research Says
If content is irrelevant to the brain, an existing neuron will not connect to another neuron nearby (Jensen, 2008).
When teachers use concrete examples from students’ lives, relational memories are created (Willis, 2007).
The brain likes novelty because whatever the brain perceives as unusual wakes it up and causes it to produce norepinephrine (Sprenger, 2005).
Make It Happen
- Your students’ brains are motivated by information that is needed to survive in the real world. Open your lesson by telling students what they will be learning and why they need the information or skill you will be teaching. For example, when teaching students how to calculate simple interest, tell them that they need this skill so they will be able to transact a loan for a future car.
- Emotion is an important way that the brain stores information. Anything emotional that happened in your personal life or in the world at large is long remembered. For example, don’t tell students what concept you are teaching, but make alarming statements about teenagers as soon as they get in the classroom. When students are really upset, announce that they have experienced the negative effects of propaganda. You’ll have their attention.
For more examples of how to hook students into relevant lessons, consult the 2nd edition of my best-selling book, Shouting Won’t Grow Dendrites.