How to Engage Distracted Students at Assumption University


Is student distraction a uniquely 21st-century problem? Is education powerless to compete against students’ other technological options?

Dr. James Lang, Professor of English and Director for the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University, returned to the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss his new book, Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It and the research behind engaging distracted students.

The problem of distraction and what we can … squirrel!

Humans have been distracted for a long time. It’s not a new problem. Aristotle talked about the distractible minds of ancient Greeks in the theater. Augustine voiced the same complaints. Throughout the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, many writers and thinkers bemoaned the distractibility of the human mind. 

The human brain, which evolved over a long time, has not changed. What has changed in the 21st century is the power of our technologies to distract us. 

“When I was growing up,” James said, “the television was the thing that everyone was concerned about in terms of distraction and attention.”

But you have to turn on a television for it to distract you. Your phone, however, nests in your pocket where it buzzes, pings, sings, and calls out: PAY ATTENTION TO ME. 

The good news is that we’re not powerless against the phones. We just have to be more concerted and deliberate in our efforts to help students retain their attention in the classroom.

Student distractibility in a virtual setting

Attention is reciprocal. The more attention I pay to you, the more attention you are going to pay to me. In a classroom, the teacher can pay attention by moving around the room, engaging individual students in conversation, and doing what it takes to build a sense of community. 

We have to think creatively to replicate those things in the remote classroom. For instance, our names tend to grab our attention. In a Zoom call, we can see everyone’s names, and that’s actually an advantage. 

We can also think about the extent to which we are trying to build community in the online classroom. Do students feel recognized as individuals with unique strengths they’re bringing into the class?

In remote classrooms, we have to work more generally at building community, so we feel that sense of reciprocal obligation to one another. I pay attention to you; you show attention to me.

Combating distractibility: modality versus time allotment

People say higher ed students aren’t paying attention because teachers are lecturing. What we need to do, according to this logic, is get rid of the lecture. 

It’s true that no one can listen attentively to a lecturer for a whole class period. It’s also true that students have trouble paying attention to a 75-minute discussion. Attention fatigues over time. And anything you do for a long period of time is going to fatigue your students’ directed attention. 

The solution is not any one particular teaching strategy, but it’s to recognize that all of our teaching strategies have limits. Consequently, we need to think about attention as an achievement. It requires sustained effort.

If we recognize that attention is an achievement that requires effort, then we can think about how to support students in their efforts to pay attention.

“We want to make sure that we’re planning our classes in ways that I think about as modular,” James explained. “I might have two or three things planned for a 50- or 75-minute class.” 

Change and variety — and breaks! — can help renew attention.

Converting the faculty from indignation to empathy

Sometimes, faculty members complain about student attention spans.

Ask them about the last departmental meeting they were in. Were they focused the whole time?

The answer to that question is almost always no. People are doing other things. They’re turning off their camera and getting up and walking away. If we’re doing those things, and we believe attention is really important, just imagine how difficult it is for students. 

That doesn’t mean we have to give up. We can start to cultivate habits of attention. But we need to think carefully about how the environment supports attention. 

Ask your faculty members what captures their attention on a Zoom call? Why? What kept them engaged? Our own experiences can create empathy with students.

Next steps to dealing with students’ attention spans

Dr. Lang’s book, Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It provides two easy takeaways:

1. Teach like a playwright.

These artists think of their work in a modular, structural way. Plays have acts, scenes, breaks, and intermissions. You go to see a classical music performance, same thing. It’s got a symphony in different parts. It’s got a shorter piece, a longer piece. They might end softly and begin loud in the next beat.

In terms of teaching like a playwright, think about the classroom experience as a modular one. Try to have two or three different, very specific things you are going to do throughout that class period. Make that structure visible to students.

2. Teach like a poet.

Poets reawaken our attention to the everyday wonders and routines of the world. What teaching strategies can reawaken the wonder of your students to your course content?

One art history professor sent her students to the local art museum. Each week, they had to look at the same painting and write a new two-page paper about it. She required this exercise for 13 weeks in a row. She told her students, “What matters here is that you learn to look carefully and pay attention. So, I’m going to create a structure for you to do that.” 

That’s what it means to take attention seriously and to give students a way to cultivate habits of attention. 


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. James Lang of Assumption University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.