“May I have your attention? Get ready to take notes because this will be on your test.”
A few years ago in the school where I taught, teachers were ordered by the administration not to lecture for longer than 15 minutes because, we were informed, students stop listening after 15 minutes. Although somewhat simplistic, this statement does have a ring of truth that is supported by the evidence of repeated experience. All of us who have listened to a speaker have felt our attention lag after a while, even when we were truly interested in what we were hearing. But 15 minutes?
It has been an article of faith for many years in the field of education, that there is a natural limit to a person’s attention span. An often-cited 1985 study documented a measured decline in engagement over the course of a 20-minute lecture.[i] A conservative 15-minute cut-off time has become a mantra in some circles, a reflexive justification for condemning traditional teaching methods. But more recent studies have brought the 15-minute rule into question, as well as the very methodology used to measure attention.[ii]
Academic debates aside, however, the real world evidence of this internal process of learning is apparent to anyone who, well, pays attention. Let’s consider this from the perspective of everyday experience.
Is there anyone who has listened to a long speech and has not felt his or her attention lag in less than 15 minutes? Is there anyone who has not had the experience of being truly engaged with a speaker’s talk, and attended to most of it for far longer than 15 minutes, but who also drifted off occasionally, only to come back in a few moments?
Is there anyone who has spoken to a group (of students or any collection of people sharing some interest) and not observed individuals in the group appear to have different levels of engagement – and then come to discover that some individuals heard a piece of information that others will swear was never communicated?
Lecturing, like any form of teaching, is subject to human individuality. It should not be seen as a mass production, imprinting students with identical sets of facts to add to their knowledge base.
Lecturing in class is an interactive experience. The speaker must be attuned to the engagement level of his or her audience, and make adjustments to his or her presentation depending on what is going on in the room. A capable lecturer must assume that some of the information provided will not be received – and adjust for that reality in his or her presentation. A good teacher will know before beginning to speak that some students will come away with different learning outcomes from the same instructor input.
It is an interactive experience, which means that it cannot be understood in terms of a teacher actively dispensing information to a crowd of passive recipients. Just as teachers must make the effort to engage their students, students must make some effort to remain focused, regardless of interest or motivation. It is human nature for attention to drift – but this is not necessarily a bad thing. In my own experience as a student (including in professional learning sessions for teachers), it is often when I am engaged with the information being presented that I am most likely to drift. If I hear something that I can apply to another area of learning, I immediately am drawn into thinking about how to integrate the new information into the existing paradigm. I sometimes need to force myself back to the real world to make sure I don’t miss too much more new information.
Students who do not make sufficient effort to maintain attention to what is going on in class will have a great deal of difficulty succeeding on their own. In fact, my own experience in the classroom tells me that there is nothing a teacher can do to overcome the powerful force of a student’s disinterest.
A decade ago, the school where I worked fell under a mandate to limit class time devoted to lectures. Administrators began to visit classrooms with stopwatches. I was deeply interested in student engagement, but I had serious doubts about whether time was the crucial factor. I created my own case study of a group of students who were performing at various levels of success in graded assignments, exhibiting different types of classroom behavior, and demonstrating different levels of intellectual engagement with their world – whether or not they were engaged specifically with the material presented in my class.
I found that the greatest indicator of success in school was the belief on the part of students that education was something they needed to work actively to acquire. Successful students attended to their responsibilities, whether or not they attended to every minute of my lectures.
The students who were not performing well in school, on the other hand, seemed to believe that education was something that was being done to them. One student in particular seemed completely content to fail my class because in his mind, the school’s credit recovery program, learning center, and counseling department would ultimately guarantee that he would get credit for the class. He had given himself permission to do nothing in my class. I was never going to get the 15 minutes of attention I was theoretically entitled to from him.
Teaching in a classroom is, at its core, human relations. Teachers need to be aware of the circumstances in front of them, and be aware that there are things going on within our students’ lives that we will never know, and cannot learn through studies conducted by statisticians from universities and think tanks. My own research conducted over nearly 20 years in the classroom suggests strongly that there in no one formula for teaching that will work for every student and for every group of students. It is clear to me that many of the strategies enforced in classrooms today fail to embrace the fundamental humanity of the task we are involved in. A mechanistic approach will ultimately fail, unless tempered with large doses of creative improvisation and a willingness to make allowances for the tremendous variations inherent in human nature.
[i] Ralph A. Burns, “Information Impact and Factors Affecting Recall.” Paper presented the the Annual National Conference on Teaching Excellence and Conference of Administrators, Austin, Tex., 1895 (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 258 639).
[ii] See for example http://teachingcenter.wustl.edu/Journal/Reviews/Pages/student-attention.aspx#.VEuoyiiBCVM