Student attention in class: Whose responsibility?

I just received a posting from Faculty Focus with the engaging title:  Why can’t students just pay attention?  Dr. Chris Hakala, the author, gives a really good overview of the dilemma many of us face when teaching:  students are not engaged, are multi-tasking at best, and distracted at worst, and are not learning or retaining key concepts.  How much responsibility should teachers bear for this lack of attention, and if we assume responsibility, what can we do about it?


Dr. Hakala defines attention, from the cognitive literature, as the idea that students have a finite amount of cognitive resources available at any given moment to devote to a particular stimuli from their sensory environment.  To that end students’ attention is constantly shuttling between what they are experiencing externally and internally…At any given moment, [they] select from a large number of potential stimuli and focus on a small number of them. If class is interesting and there is activity, students can focus on those activities and work to remember that information for later use. However, when class isn’t engaging, students will find other things to occupy their attention.

You may recall reading my thoughts and others’ on multitasking and how it’s not really effective tasking at all.  ( and

However, it’s a very challenging mind-set to change, as students appear convinced that they can multitask (they can) and learn well (a much more difficult proposition).

     multitasking 1

Dr. Hakala claims, as do many educators, that we as teachers should accept some of the responsibility for engaging students, and allowing them to focus on our teaching.  He suggests the following:

  1. Ask questions and require students to write responses. Then ask again and have them read their answers to the class (not all, obviously, but a sampling).
  2. Have students respond to questions about readings or a previous class activity and bring those answers to foster peer discussions.  in groups 2
  3. Craft mini-lectures to include time for student comment, feedback, and response.
  4. Focus learning on student perspectives.
  5. Create rapport with students and build a classroom climate where students feel comfortable sharing their ideas.

I would add,

  1. Use small group learning, especially when all groups report to the whole class (this can be done by having the group answer a challenging multiple choice question that is the focus of the group task)
  2. Ask students to answer a question or solve a problem and share the answer with a peer. (See Peer Instruction by Eric Mazur.)  Peer answers can be shared with the whole class. (Think, Pair, Share).
  3. Break up a lecture into 15 minute “chunks” punctuated by student activity.
  4. Create an outline, follow it, and demonstrate to students where in the activities of the outline you are.
  5. Use quizzes, or Readiness Assessment Tests to determine understanding

AND (and I’m going to be radical here) ask students to close their devices at certain points in the class when they’re not needed for taking notes, looking up references, etc.

It wouldn’t be one of my blog articles without a reference (in case you want to read more): look_it_up

Dr. Hakala states that there is evidence to support that deep processing, which happens when students are engaged (with only one task!), leads to better learning  and cites Brown, Roedigger & McDaniel, 2014; Benassi, Overson, & Hakala, 2013.  I highly recommend the Brown, Roedigger and McDaniel text: Make it stick: the science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. I’ve directed students and faculty to Prof. Roediggers’ writing before–he makes learning about learning accessible.

You can find a description of Benassi, Overson & Hakala’s book, Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum (2014) at

Back to the blog article:

My stance is that teachers bear a some responsibility for student engagement…Yes, I know we all learned from 4 hour lectures; yes, we all had boring professors… and yes, look at how well we learned.  However, we understand a lot more about learning now, and we have a different group of learners now.  In the interests of good pedagogy as well as good role modelling and personal satisfaction, it’s important to set the stage so that learners will learn well.

What happens after that, however, is a student’s own responsibility.  Part of the challenge in medical school comes from students not always being able to distinguish what is important at early stages.  But as adult learners in medicine, and with patient safety, professionalism, and their future sound practice at stake, it’s important that we challenge students to take on part of the responsibility for learning, put the distractors away, and focus.  It’s a hard habit to break for some of our “wired generation” but I believe it is worthwhile.

What are your thoughts on student and teacher responsibilities for engagement?  And what ideas do you have to stimulate learning in class?







2 Responses to Student attention in class: Whose responsibility?

  1. Elizabeth Eisenhauer says:

    I completely agree with some of the ideas here and would offer another: bringing patients into the classroom also changes the dynamic to one that may be more engaging and focus attention. Some important points are best made by those who have/are suffering the condition. I would also agree that there are times when a request to turn of phones/ internet access is important – that also goes for those of us on the faculty side who seem to be guilty of similar behvaiours in rounds/meetings at times!

    • Hi Elizabeth: Thank you for the great idea to make the classroom active and engaging! Finding out about the patient’s journey is a great way for students to see the relevance of their learning. ANd thanks for the reminder about faculty and their desire to multi task! 🙂


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