If learning is the goal, student engagement may not be sufficient, but in most cases—whether they’re in the classroom or studying on their own—it is necessary. When considering how to promote the greatest likelihood of engagement, a number of internal and external factors come into play. Students need to be actively attentive, for example—and often to maintain that attention over an extended period of time. Internal factors such as alertness (How much sleep did my students get?) and distraction (What sorts of family matters are on my students’ minds? Why does it sound like there's a jackhammer in the room above us right now?) are, as every teacher knows, often completely outside of our control. That being said, whether you're talking about classroom settings—where teachers can more directly regulate many, if not all, aspects of the learning environment—or dorm rooms and libraries—where students must do their own regulating—cognitive science on how attention works offers a range of practical applications for improving student engagement.
In its most basic form, attention refers to the process of noticing and taking in information. As such, it is the first step in the learning process (whether that be academic or otherwise). There are two forms of attention:
- Passive attention. Passive attention is the involuntary intake of external, sensory stimuli. In the learning environment, these stimuli include things such as other students talking, cars driving by, bright flashes of light from a cell phone, and a multitude of other events that are picked up by the senses. This process of information intake is unfiltered, which means that any external events may attract a person’s attention, and distract them from the task at hand (Thorne & Thomas, 2009).
Active attention. Active attention is, by its nature, a conscious and engaging process. It is comprised of six steps or elements:
- Alertness. For students to effectively take in and retain information, they first need to be mentally alert. The reticular activating system (RAS) is one part of the brain responsible for levels of alertness. The RAS operates autonomously and is responsible for triggering mental alertness and activity in individuals when they wake up, and reducing or removing this alertness when individuals need to sleep. Students who are mentally alert are better equipped to engage in the learning experience (Thorne & Thomas, 2009), but as students get tired, their ability to maintain alertness decreases.
Selection. Even an alert student has a wide array of attention-grabbing stimuli on which to train their attention. The second step of active attention therefore involves the conscious selection of the most important stimulus on which to focus. In the context of the learning environment, for example, the important stimulus would be the teacher delivering a piece of content or providing assignment instructions to students. Meanwhile, other salient stimuli competing for the student’s attention might include other students, laptops, and phones, and the student’s own internal thoughts. Failure to select the important stimulus (the teacher) as the focus of attention could result in students being unable to complete an assignment, completing an assignment incorrectly, or failing to grasp a certain concept (Thorne & Thomas, 2009). Selection is an ongoing process that occurs any time a new stimulus is introduced to the environment. The frontal lobes of the brain control the selection process, by telling a student where they need to focus their attention and how long this attention should be held (Thorne & Thomas, 2009). Through his research on selection in active attention, Daniel Simons created the "monkey business" illusion, shown in the video below.
- Distraction (avoidance). An integral part of the selection process is being able to filter out the less salient stimuli that can act as distractions. These distractions can be external (sights and sounds) or internal (thoughts and physical and emotional states). For example, if a student is struggling with mental health issues, these issues and associated emotions may distract them from paying attention to their teacher (Thorne & Thomas, 2009). When internal thoughts act as distractions, this is known as mind-wandering. Mind-wandering is covered in further detail below. However, at this stage it is worth noting two concepts associated with mind-wandering and distraction. The first is executive function. This refers to the cognitive processes (frontal lobes) that control planning, attention, memory, and multitasking. Any impairments of the executive function can result in inattention (distraction) and impulsivity (Banich, 2009). The second concept is that of ego depletion. Ego depletion is the idea that there only exists a certain amount of mental alertness or activity from which willpower or self-control draws. Once this is depleted, it becomes harder for individuals to remain focused on or stay committed to completing a task. While the nature and mechanism of ego depletion is unknown and an area of active research in psychology, findings persist that mental fatigue caused by long periods of focus can result in individuals getting easily distracted (Baumeister et al., 1998).
- Duration. To remain focused on a given task, students need to be mentally alert and maintain alertness or energy throughout the duration of a task. This step of the active attention process can therefore be mentally demanding, as the harder the task is to be completed, the more effort and mental alertness is required to complete it. Often, the tasks a student finds the hardest (and the most cognitively-demanding) to complete are either tasks they do not like or the ones they perceive to be difficult or complex (Thorne & Thomas, 2009).
- Preview. During the fifth step of active attention, an individual identifies the courses of action available to them (given the circumstances or information) and previews or reflects on their consequences to determine the best course of action. In the learning environment, previewing supports a student’s successful completion of a multiple-choice quiz because it requires analysis of each answer option before selecting the correct one. Previewing helps regulate cognitive, verbal, emotional, and physical behavior (Thorne & Thomas, 2009).
- Self-monitoring. Self-monitoring is the process through which individuals monitor and regulate their behaviors by assessing the situation, and modifying their behaviors if necessary. Once the situation is over, or the task is complete, an individual can then complete an additional assessment to ensure their behaviors have led to the appropriate and desired outcome. As it relates to active attention, self-monitoring helps individuals regulate how much attention to dedicate to a task, the speed at which the task can be completed, and the time needed to successfully complete the task. Students can apply this process of self-monitoring by deciding to spend more time focusing on and practicing concepts they find harder to comprehend, for example (Thorne & Thomas, 2009).
Although active attention is largely the responsibility of the student, there are ways for teachers to encourage or better facilitate this process. As a teacher, your focus should be on ensuring that the learning environment is as conducive to active attention as possible. You can do this by:
- Removing auditory distractions (for example, asking students to switch their phones off or keep them muted);
- Promoting a “classroom” culture of respect (for example, encouraging turn-taking during discussions, discouraging interruptions, and ensuring quietness during exams or tests); and
- Removing visual distractions (for example, only putting up posters or notices relevant to the subject of study).
While this list is not exhaustive, it acts as a basis from which teachers can consider how best to promote active attention within their specific learning contexts.
Though we touched briefly on the concept of mind-wandering above, in the context of attention, it is worth taking the time to analyze this concept in greater detail to determine the potential positive and negative effects with which it is associated. For clarity, it is beneficial to reiterate that mind-wandering refers to moments of inattention in which an individual’s attention shifts from the task at hand to internal thoughts. These thoughts may center around aspects of an individual’s past, present, or future (McDonald, 2016).
Traditionally, literature on mind-wandering has been positioned as negative; however, recent research on the impact of mind-wandering shows that this phenomenon may be beneficial to individuals. This is, in part, due to what researchers have discovered about the differences between intentional and unintentional mind-wandering.
- Often, when individuals talk about mind-wandering, they are referring to unintentional mind-wandering in which distraction from the task at hand is accidental and detrimental. In such instances, mind-wandering is undesired (hence unintentional) because of the importance of the task at hand (for example, writing a test) or the potential danger that it may cause (for example, getting distracted while driving, or operating heavy machinery). Studies show that this form of mind-wandering can occur following interruption, distraction, or when the given task is cognitively-demanding (McDonald, 2016). These findings support the “unintentional” nature of this form of mind-wandering. Individuals often do not willingly forget the task at hand. Rather, their attention is involuntarily shifted by internal thought processes.
- On the other hand, intentional mind-wandering has been shown to occur when the task at hand is not cognitively-demanding, or is considered relatively easy. Research has shown that it is this form of mind-wandering that may be beneficial to individuals. This is evident in a recent research study conducted by Seli, Risko, and Smilek (2016), in which they highlight that intentional and unintentional mind-wandering occurs for different reasons and can have different consequences.
To learn more about the causes of intentional mind-wandering, Seli, Risko, and Smilek (2016) conducted experiments in which participants completed a sustained-attention task. This task required participants to press a button when they saw the numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 (the targets), and not to press the button when they saw the number 3 (non-target). Participants were split into two groups: one group completed an easy version of the task (the numbers occurred in the correct sequence) and the other completed a harder version (the numbers occurred out of sequence) (Medea et al., 2016).
At various intervals of their task completion, individuals were then asked to state if they were focusing on the current task or if their minds had wandered. If mind-wandering had occurred, participants were asked to specify if it was unintentional or intentional. Through this experiment, Seli and his colleagues found that participants who performed the easy version of the task experienced more intentional mind-wandering compared to participants who completed the difficult version of the task. Thus, showing that intentional mind-wandering occurs when the context allows a measure of inattention (Seli, Risko & Smilek, 2016).
Through their research on how individuals develop and refine personal goals, Medea et al. (2016) found that mind-wandering facilitated the refining of these goals. To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers conducted a study in which they asked participants to spend 15 minutes writing about their 3 most important life goals. They were then asked to complete a simple cognitive task (matching shapes). At various stages of their task completion, they were asked questions to determine how much attention they were paying to the task. Once the task was complete, they were asked to spend another 15 minutes writing about their 3 most important life goals (Seli, Risko & Smilek, 2016).
Medea et al. (2016) found that the participants who reported mind-wandering during the cognitive task wrote more concrete and specific descriptions of their goals the second time around, compared to their pre-cognitive-task reflection. This study showed that future-oriented thoughts that occur during mind-wandering help individuals clarify personal goals (Medea et al., 2016).
That said, in the context of the learning environment, it is still unclear how mind-wandering may be beneficial to a student’s performance or learning journey. It is therefore important to encourage students to refrain from mind-wandering and remain engaged and invested in their learning. In fact, Seli, Risko, and Smilek were interested in developing ways for students to actively minimize the amount of unintentional and intentional mind-wandering within the learning environment (Seli, Risko & Smilek, 2016).
Illusion of Competence
The final factor that is associated with attention is the illusion of competence phenomenon. This phenomenon refers to when students believe they have greater knowledge of and competency in a subject area or skill, based on their repeated reading of a textbook or piece of learning material. When studying this content, students falsely believe that they are retaining and comprehending more information than they really are. However, upon being tested, students realize the extent to which they have failed to retain this information effectively (Karpicke, Butler & Roediger, 2009).
In their paper on metacognitive learning strategies, Karpicke, Butler, and Roediger (2009) explain that students struggle to retain information using this study method due to their failure to actively test their recall. By simply rereading information, students do not practice memory retrieval, instead believing that this repetition will ingrain the information in their memories. Through their research, Karpicke, Butler, and Roediger (2009) have found that this belief stems from some students being unaware of the benefits of frequent testing on recall (known as the testing effect).
To arrive at this conclusion, Karpicke, Butler, and Roediger (2009) carried out research in which they asked undergraduate students to complete a two-question survey about their studying habits. The first was an open-ended question about the students’ chosen study methods. The second question asked students to choose how they would study a chapter from a textbook, in preparation for an exam. They were given three options:
- Repeatedly read the chapter.
- Practice their recall of the chapter’s contents (with or without rereading the chapter).
- Study using an alternative method. (Karpicke, Butler & Roediger, 2009:474)
Out of the 177 students surveyed, 10% indicated that they would test themselves to gauge how much knowledge they retained, and only 8% said they would practice recall as it would improve their competence ahead of the exam. These results show that most of the students in this study were unaware of the cognitive benefits associated with self-testing (Karpicke, Butler & Roediger, 2009:746). For a teacher, the results of studies like this are useful in helping students develop study methods that retain their attention (shorter study periods interspersed with frequent testing) and support improved recall.