Magazine Feature

Attention Is an Achievement

How to help students stay present and focused in class

By James M. Lang

Summer 2021

In his poem “Frost at Midnight,” the nineteenth-century British writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge reflects on his childhood education. His description should resonate with anyone whose mind has wandered in class despite determined efforts to stay focused:

Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

The young Coleridge has learned, as so many of us have, to fix his eyes with “mock study” on his book while he daydreams; at the same time, he hopes desperately for someone—anyone—to come into the room and interrupt the daily lessons of his “stern preceptor.”

We tend to think about the problem of distraction in the classroom as a modern one. Educators might battle digital devices for students’ attention, but our literary and philosophical heritage testifies to a robust tradition of people who have lamented their inability to pay attention in contexts that demanded it, from work and school to spiritual practice and relationships. We have never found it easy to sustain our attention.

Despite this, many educators act as if attention is the norm and distraction is a falling away from that norm, a characteristic of poor (or bored) students. Instructors often take on the role of stern preceptors who admonish their students to pay attention through warnings and exhortations or punishments and rewards. Our mistake all along has been that we assume students should pay attention, and we reproach them when they don’t.

Instead, we have to shift our thinking to recognize that attention is an achievement, not a given. Everyone struggles with attention at times, and of course many students find paying attention particularly challenging, including some who might struggle with attention-deficit disorders. Helping those students might require extra effort from instructors, perhaps in conjunction with campus accessibility offices.

If we view attention as a concerted effort by both instructors and students, then our task as educators becomes clear: we should be helping and supporting our students as they work to achieve attention in our classrooms. When we don’t do that work, we should not be surprised when we see our students drifting toward their distractions.

Prior to the pandemic, instructors who took on the stern preceptor role frequently banned digital devices like cell phones, tablets, and laptops in the classroom. Take away the digital devices, the reasoning went, and students will be more likely to pay attention in class. The intention behind these bans was good—we have plenty of research showing that when students use their devices for off-task behaviors, it can hurt both their own learning and the learning of peers around them.

But using blanket bans on digital devices to support attention in the classroom has two fatal flaws. First, it fails to account for students who need technology to learn, especially students with documented learning challenges or disabilities that require digitally enabled accommodations. If educators ban devices except for students with accommodation letters, they can undercut the privacy of those students.

We will not solve the problem of distraction in education by banning devices from our courses. Instead, we have to recognize that we can no longer take attention for granted—and we probably never should have done so in the first place. Image credit: iStock

Second, these bans put the classroom into a strange kind of bubble that doesn’t really exist in the professional world. Professionals interact with technology throughout the day, and educators should be helping students learn to manage relationships with their devices while they are also trying to work or learn. Digital devices have the potential to promote new and exciting forms of learning, and they deserve a place in our classrooms, even if it’s only an occasional one.

Even without these fatal flaws, the idea of banning digital devices from the classroom seems almost quaint in the pandemic era. Almost every instructor taught online in some form or another in 2020, and most of us became familiar with new digital tools we could use to support our students’ learning. We certainly should not abandon those useful and productive tools as we return to face-to-face classrooms; to the contrary, we should be more aware of how such tools can enhance student learning. The pandemic should help us realize that we will not solve the problem of distraction in education by banning devices from our courses. Instead, we have to recognize that we can no longer take attention for granted—and we probably never should have done so in the first place.

One way to support students’ attention is to acknowledge the power of what I call the attention norms that operate in our courses. I draw the idea of attention norms from the work of sociologist Jay R. Howard, whose 2015 book Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online argues that certain kinds of behavioral norms shape whether and how students participate in classroom discussions. Students learned during their K–12 education, for example, that a small number of classmates will always raise their hands at every opportunity, which means that most students can disengage and let those vocal students do all the work. This powerful behavioral norm gets in the way of robust and inclusive classroom discussions.

Just as behavioral norms influence student participation in discussions, attention norms condition how students attend to the course content and to one another in the classroom. During COVID-era online classes, it has become an unfortunately too-common experience for faculty to be teaching to a gallery of blank screens and muted microphones, with students busy doing other work on their devices during class. This is an attention norm that obviously interferes both with the community of the classroom and the quality of student engagement and learning.

Part of our work as educators, Howard argues, has to include acknowledging and deliberately reshaping the behavioral norms that operate in our classrooms, during both face-to-face and online instruction. If we don’t intentionally do that work, the norms will hold sway and dampen participation, no matter what creative teaching strategies we might use. We need to do that same work for the attention norms that operate in our courses. The three strategies below, used in concert in any type of college course, can help instructors do that work.

1. Inform students about why their attention matters to the whole class. Students tend to think about distraction in the classroom as a private issue. If they choose to distract themselves on their devices and earn a lower grade as a result, that’s their business, right? Why should the instructor care about a distracted student watching videos on a laptop during a class discussion? Many educators tacitly accept this view, not wanting to take on the role of policing distractions in the classroom. The trouble with this view is that a distracted student—especially one on a digital device—may diminish not only their own learning but also the learning of their peers around them, whether we are in physical classrooms or online.

In a recent senior seminar, I asked students to respond to a discussion board question about how devices affected their learning in the physical classroom and how our class policies could support their attention. Most students reported that they preferred taking notes by hand in order to reduce distractions for themselves but that this strategy wasn’t foolproof—they were still vulnerable to the distracting behaviors of their peers. “I am very distracted by people that scroll through their laptops doing things such as online shopping or watching Netflix,” one student noted.

A study by psychologists Arnold L. Glass and Mengxue Kang, published in the journal Educational Psychology in 2019, confirms the impressions of my students that their learning can be harmed by distracted peers. Students in two sections of an in-person psychology course were given open access to their phones and laptops during half of the class sessions and restricted access during the other half. Access to devices, the researchers found, made a significant difference at the end of the semester: on the final exam, the students scored around half a letter grade better on material from the restricted-access days than on material from the open-access days, when at least some students must have been using their laptops for non-course-related purposes. An important finding in this study was that grades were lower even for students who reported in surveys that they had not used their devices on the open-access days. In other words, even when students did not succumb to distractions on their own devices, their learning seemed to suffer in the presence of distracted peers.

I spent two years studying attention and distraction in the classroom for my book Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do about It, pairing research from brain science and education with observations of dozens of classes in different disciplines on my own campus. In those observations, I saw the cascading effects of digital distraction play out repeatedly. Whenever a student went off task on a laptop, especially when it involved video or social media, nearby students swiveled their heads toward that screen. The enticement of those flashing pixels a desk or two over proves incredibly difficult to resist, even for the most well-intentioned student.

The diminished learning in an online classroom is more subtle but no less real. Research shows that students learn not only from the educator and course content but also from one another. Every student’s unique perspective and ideas have the potential to contribute something new to our understanding of the course material, something that nobody else would have thought of. Students who do not participate in an online discussion or activity have thus robbed everyone of the insights they might have offered—and that might have been the very insights that broke the topic open for one of their peers or helped everyone see the content in a new light.

Of course, there are many other reasons students may have difficulty participating in class, such as anxiety, introversion, and learning challenges or disabilities. To create a safe, welcoming environment where students feel comfortable adding their voices to class-wide discussions, I give them a chance to prepare by participating in small-group discussions or writing tasks first. I let them know that when I invite them to add to a discussion, they can decline by saying “pass” without being penalized.

That said, educators have to do a better job of convincing students that their voices are essential to the learning of the whole community and that, therefore, their attention matters deeply to us all. When we present this argument to our students, we begin the work of reshaping the attention norms that diminish the learning in our course communities.

2. Use warm language. The first time I addressed devices in the classroom was in spring 2008, when I put the following warning on my syllabus: “PUT AWAY AND TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONES! If your phone rings or vibrates in class, or I see you checking it or texting, you will be marked absent for that day.”

The all caps and exclamation point certainly let students know that they were NOT(!) allowed to use their phones in class. But this was the entire statement. I made no effort to explain to students why those devices represented such a problem in my courses, which run largely through discussion and in-class activities of various kinds.

After a few years of upbraiding my students in this way, I learned to explain my (evolving) policy more clearly: “Since so much of the work we do in this class depends upon your participation, it’s important to me that you are here and present for one another. In our classroom, we listen to each other as much as we listen to the texts we’re reading and discussing, and that listening is supported by respectful attention.”

As it turns out, research on syllabi suggests that providing this kind of rationale to students makes a significant difference in how they perceive the course and the instructor. In a study published in Social Psychology of Education in 2011, psychologists Richard J. Harnish and K. Robert Bridges presented students with two different versions of the same course syllabus, written in either a warm and friendly tone or a cold and unfriendly tone. The unfriendly, cold-language syllabus offered facts, information, and policies. The friendly, warm-language syllabus provided language that was more empathetic and personable and—most important, to my mind—offered a rationale for the course’s assignments.

The students in this study who read the friendly syllabus rated the instructor as warmer, more approachable, and more motivated to teach the course—judgments that have the potential to increase student interest and engagement in the course (although the researchers did not measure this). “Presenting students with an effective syllabus written in a friendly, approachable tone,” the researchers wrote, “can influence perceptions of the instructor and the course [and] may facilitate faculty engagement with students.”

As educators write or edit the policies or statements on their syllabi about the way digital devices can detract from the sense of community in the class, they should take a close look at that language and evaluate its temperature. Ask yourself: what does the wording convey about the kind of experience the students will have with you? One in which Coleridge’s stern preceptor keeps an eye out for offenders, or one in which educator and students work together to help each other be present?

A warm-language introduction to an attention policy might begin along these lines: “The time we have together each week is short, and so I really want us to remain present to one another during that time. I hope you will learn from me and from your fellow students, and I know from past experience that I always learn from you. We will thus make being present to one another a core value of this class.”

When I began offering these kinds of warm-language descriptions to my students, they opened up and shared their experiences and opinions with me. Multiple students, for example, told me during a class discussion that although they chose to take notes by hand, they hoped that I would find ways to accommodate students who preferred to take notes on a laptop. One undergraduate education major pointed out to me that “many students find it easier to type notes, look up information, and add links from outside sources” on their laptops, concluding that allowing laptop use in class, at least part of the time, would create the most “inclusive and successful environment for all students.”

A warm-language introduction to your policies on attention and distraction might likewise invite these kinds of thoughtful responses from your students. I have learned much from such responses, which helps to explain my final recommendation below.

3. Invite feedback. The final step educators should take in reshaping the attention norms in our courses should be to invite students to help us make attention an essential value in our teaching. Teaching can be a solitary endeavor, especially online, and you may not be aware of the strategies your colleagues have used to keep students attentive. But your students have sat through multiple courses and have encountered a wide range of different teaching strategies. One of your colleagues might have come up with innovative strategies for keeping students attentive and engaged that could help you as well. Certainly, we should be sharing our best practices in departmental meetings or at pedagogy seminars and workshops—but a quicker route to discovering effective teaching strategies might be simply to ask your students what has helped them stay focused and learn in other courses. Use your learning management system or a discussion board post to pose the following questions:

• What helps you pay attention in your courses?

• What interferes with your attention? What sends you to your distractions?

• What could I do in this class to help you stay focused?

Students’ responses to these questions could lead to new ideas that you might never have thought of otherwise. When I presented a warm-language draft of a technology policy and asked students for feedback, one student posted this idea to our discussion board:

If you put the PowerPoints on Brightspace, students who feel they cannot take notes fast enough would be able to write down what they thought [were] the most important details in class, knowing that they could go back and review the other information in Brightspace later. Being able to do this may impact students’ decision to use laptops in class and could also help students improve their note-taking even if they chose not to use their laptop.

I immediately adopted this practice and have used it every semester since. Another recommendation made by multiple students was to create screen-free areas of the classroom for those who might find the laptop use of their peers distracting. Here, too, the recommendations of my students line up with the research. In the June 2021 issue of Teaching of Psychology, researchers Laura Rhinehart, Salvador R. Vazquez, and Patricia M. Greenfield describe the results of two studies in which students had the option of sitting in a screen-free zone in the classroom. The average exam scores for the whole class were raised in both studies, and in the second study, students who sat in the screen-free zone scored better on exams than their peers. (Note that some students in these studies complained on course evaluations when students with laptops were put in the back of the room; students preferred the screen-free and device zones to be side by side.)

I am offering my students the option of screen-free zones this fall, and I expect to continue learning from my students about how to best create a climate of attention in the classroom. If you make students your partners in the work of developing new attention norms in your courses, you might be surprised by what they can teach you about how to help them learn.

Attention is an achievement, and the many distractions that beset us in the digital era have made it an especially challenging achievement for learners today. If we want our students to give us their attention, then we must deliberately strive to make attention a value in our teaching and invite students to join us in this work.

Image credit: Unsplash


  • James M. Lang

    James M. Lang

    James M. Lang is the author of Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do about It. He teaches literature and writing at Assumption University.