It is easy to become distracted when materials or experiences seem irrelevant, unobtainable, or uninteresting. In this episode, James Lang joins us to explore strategies to build and strengthen student attention to improve learning outcomes. James is a professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University and is also the editor of the West Virginia University Press series,Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, and the author of numerous articles and books on teaching and learning, including Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning and Teaching and Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It.
- Lang, J. M. (2016). Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. John Wiley & Sons.
- Lang, J.M. (2020). Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Basic Books.
- Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. John Wiley & Sons.
- Articles by James Lang in the Chronicle of Higher Education
- Ashley Waggoner Denton, “Making Informed Decisions: Laptops, Smartphones, and Your Studies – A PowerPoint Resource.”
- Lang, J. M. (2013). Cheating Lessons. Harvard Press.
- Gazzaley, A., & Rosen, L. D. (2016). The distracted mind. Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.
- Hitz, Z. (2020). Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. Princeton University Press.
John: It is easy to become distracted when materials or experiences seem irrelevant, unobtainable, or uninteresting. In this episode, we explore strategies to build and strengthen student attention to improve learning outcomes.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guest today is James Lang. James is a professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University and is also the editor of the West Virginia University Press series,Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, and the author of numerous articles and books on teaching and learning, including Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning and Teaching and Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Welcome, Jim.
Jim: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
John: Good to see you again.
John: Our teas today are:
Jim: I’m actually a tea aficionado. I get my tea from David’s Teas, which is a Canadian company. They, I think, have suffered a lot during the pandemic and closed most of their stores, but they still have a great online presence. And my favorite is Nepal Black.
Rebecca: Oh, that sounds good.
Jim: Yeah, it’s a great black tea. And I have many David’s Teas, though. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I almost forgot about David’s Teas. I need to cycle back to that.
Jim: Yeah, it’s great stuff.
Rebecca: I’m on my last cup of a big pot of English Breakfast tea.
Jim: I love English breakfast. I love Earl Grey. You know, all the greens. I just love tea.
Rebecca: You’re in the right place, then.
Jim: [LAUGHTER] Yeah, exactly.
John: And, you may remember the collection of teas we had in our workshop.
Jim: Oh, I totally remember. Yes, that was like tea Nirvana in your center.
John: It’s sitting there kind of empty right now. But, we’re hoping we’ll be back there soon.
Rebecca: The collection of teas is lonely. [LAUGHTER]
John: Although every now and then some get pilfered from the office. And I’m drinking one of them right now. A blueberry green tea.
Rebecca: That sounds good.
John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your upcoming book, Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, which I’m really looking forward to receiving when it comes out in October, I believe. Perhaps we could start by talking about the role of attention in learning. Why should we focus so much on attention?
Jim: So, in the book, I argue that we need to think about attention as actually the kind of foundational step for all learning; no learning happens without attention. So, I actually think it’s a value that we need to be more willing to kind of fold into our pedagogical thinking. If you look at the research on how people learn, almost all of it will tell you that the first thing that has to happen is the learner has to attend to whatever the content might be. And I also believe that it’s important for us to make attention a value in the way we form community in the classroom. We should be attending not only to the course content, but to one another. So, we’ve talked a lot in recent decades about the importance of having a learning community in the classroom, about having relationships between us and our students, and the students having relationships with one another. All of those things depend upon the attention that we pay to one another. So, to me, there’s a kind of cognitive aspect to this. But, there’s also a kind of ethical aspect to it. We owe that attention to one another, we need to be able to pay attention to the students and to the specific students in our room and not just sort of a generic idea of a student, we want students to listen to one another. When students are airing their ideas in the classroom, we as teachers want to be able to listen to them, but we want students to be able to listen to them as well. So, I think we really do need to pay more attention to attention in our pedagogical thinking. So, that’s kind of what the book is about. The kind of overarching point of it really is to get away from this thinking that attention is sort of the norm or that this is something we can just take for granted in the classroom. And that we should expect students just to be able to sit and pay attention, because that’s the normal modus operandi in the classroom. And instead, to recognize that attention is an achievement. It’s something that we have to work at. And as a result, faculty members have to think about how do they support student attention in the classroom. How are they deliberately cultivating it? And how are they deliberately sustaining it, both to the classroom content and to the other human beings in the room?
Rebecca: Like other kind of pedagogical approaches, it seems like talking about attention with your students might be a good thing to start off the semester, and explain what attention actually is. Do you have any recommendations for thinking through that with students?
Jim: Absolutely. There are great resources out there that can help us educate our students about attention and about distraction. And we have to start with those kinds of conversations about how we make the classroom a place where attention is a primary value. And again, this doesn’t mean like attention, where it’s just sort of me laser focused in on the teacher and being attentive like that for 50 or 75 minutes. We’re not built that way. That’s not how attention works. But we want to do our best to kind of continually renew the attention that we pay to one another. And I think that has to start with an explicit conversation with our students. And to say that “Look, you know, it’s important for me to hear your ideas. So, when you come in here, if you’re doing other things, then the contributions that you would make to this classroom, which I know are important, are going to get lost. And when your fellow students are speaking, I want us all to be paying attention and listening to what that student has to say.” So, I think we have to start with those kinds of conversations. And maybe not in the first day… I think there’s a lot we can do on the first day to try to engage students and set the tone for the course… but, sometime in that first week, to really have a conversation with students to say it’s important for us to pay attention to one another in the classroom. Here are the guidelines I’ve developed t do that and I welcome your input on those guidelines. And then, by the end of this week, we’re going to come to an agreement on these are the rules that we all will follow together in order to make sure that we are fulfilling our obligations to one another, in terms of building a community and paying attention to one another, and paying attention to one other’s ideas.
Rebecca: If we build the value of attention into our course, what does that look like,over the course of the semester? We talked a little bit about a discussion, setting some boundaries or some rules, but, how does that play out over the course of the semester?
Jim: Well, so two things. So, first of all, I do argue in the book, actually, that I think there’s value in having an explicit kind of guideline for how we will deal with both attention and distraction in the classroom. And that includes what we’re going to do with our technologies, but it’s not limited to that, and to develop some explicit guidelines that are shared with students that they’re invited to comment on that, then they actually will sign and say, you know, “I agree to sort of abide by this policy,” and then to revisit it, to come back to it in the middle of the semester, for example, at a midterm evaluations and say, “How are we doing with the guidelines? Do we need to update these? Or do we feel like everyone is kind of on board or are people slipping away? What can I do to help get everyone back and make sure that we’re still paying attention to one other? …because attention fatigues over time, that happens in an individual class session, but also happens over the semester, right? So, we’re going to get to a point of this semester, at which we’re all tired, we’re finding it harder and harder to pay attention to one another because there’s lots of stuff going on, and for the students, all their midterms and getting toward the end of the semester. So, it needs to be addressed initially, and it needs to be revisited. Now, from the teacher’s side, there’s a lot of things that we can do to kind of say, “Look, I’m doing everything I can to help support your attention in the classroom here.” And all those are kind of explicit pedagogical practices that we can take. And in the book, I talk about two creative ways of thinking about this, to think like a playwright and to think like a poet playwrights have long experiences of trying to guide people through experiences that unfold over time. So, a playwright has to think about “how do I maintain the attention of an audience for an hour, two, or three hours, sitting in a dark room, where the audience is supposed to be looking just at this stage and following the story?” How do they do that? They vary the structure, right? There are acts and scenes and intermissions, there’s rising and falling action, there are stories unfolding. Not only that, but like you go to the symphony or whatever, right? It’s the same thing, you’re going to have movements, you’re going to have pauses in the action, you’re going to have a movement that ends quietly, but then begins with a bang. The people that have had to think about “how do I pull the attention of an audience over time? …we can learn a lot from that. So, I think teachers need to think a little bit more like that, to think about the classroom experience as something that unfolds over time, and therefore needs to have a structure and variety to it. Right? So, that, essentially, I argue in the book for thinking about your classroom experiences, as kind of a modular one, where you’re going to have an opening activity that takes 10 minutes, and then there’s going to be something that goes on for 20 minutes, and then you’ll have a finishing thing. And not only to make those changes, because change renews attention, right? We know that from the research, change can renew attention. So, you have the changes. But then you also have the fact that these things are different. So, that like I’m doing something passive, like I’m listening to a mini lecture, but then I stop and do something. And then maybe I get that another passive experience. So, that’s the first thing is to think a little bit more like how we’re varying the structure of the classroom experience. And by thinking like a poet, what I mean by that is that one of the things that poetry and literature can do for us, it helps us see the world anew, right? Like, it takes everyday experiences and objects and things that we’re familiar with, and it shows them to us in a new light. So, we wake up to them or say, “Wow, like, I never thought about a peach like that, right? Like, that’s amazing.” There’s this incredibly beautiful and complex thing” or like a still life painting is trying to do the same thing for us, right? …to show the world back to us, in all its wonders and complexities and intrigue. And I think we need to do that as well. We need to think about like, what are the opportunities that we have to show students the amazing, wondrous, mysterious aspects of our discipline that can awaken their attention to what we’re trying to teach. So, in the book, I argue for a what I call signature attention activities, which might be something that you would do, you know, once a day, once a week, a few times a semester, but that are really kind of like creative pedagogical things that get students re-energized and re-engaged. And recognizing, like this everyday thing they might be experiencing, actually is an incredible, amazing thing that deserves their interest and engagement. So, thinking like a playwright, thinking like a poet… to me, those are two kinds of ways to try and develop new approaches to cultivating and sustaining student attention.
John: So, in terms of thinking like a playwright, would it make sense to break up each class period into a narrative or into a storyline where you have those modules that you talk about, but perhaps do something at the beginning to activate attention to provoke curiosity?
Jim: Absolutely. I mean, there’s lots of things that you can do, I think, at the beginning to kind of get them engaged. You can tell a great story, you can pose a problem or a question, but you have to do something other than just kind of “Okay, here we go. Here are the four concepts that we’re going to talk about today.” I think, if you really want people’s attention. Here you can expand it to other creative arts as well. When you pick up a novel, The first two pages, a novelist knows, they’ve got to draw you in in those first two pages, you’re going to put the book down, right? A television show, think about how many television shows, films, they begin with something that really is designed to capture your attention and draw you in and keep you engaged for the rest of that experience. We’re drawn to stories, we’re drawn to questions and problems. But, if we can think about foregrounding those, that’s a way of getting us engaged before we then go through and are doing the sort of harder cognitive work of whatever that classroom might be.
Rebecca: You mentioned some signature pedagogies to implement throughout the semester to focus our attention. In the spirit of small teaching, is there one that’s small and easy that faculty who maybe are under stress during a semester can implement right now.
Jim: The example I give it, the book… I’ll start with the one that kind of originally got me thinking about this. There was a faculty member actually across town for me at Holy Cross, an art historian, who since passed away. But she had her students go to the Worcester Art History Museum, and every week, they had to go to the museum and look at the same painting and write a different one- to two-page essay about that same painting over the course of the entire semester. They do 13 short essays about the same painting. And that, to me, is a great example of creative thinking about like, this is how you make attention a value. You know, you start and you look at it in a very surface oriented way. And then you just have to keep looking and looking and looking. And the more you look, the deeper you get into it. And the more you start to see all the sort of incredible stuff in there. So, I kind of encourage people to think about what is the thing in your discipline that’s like that painting that like you can go back to, or that you can develop some kind of strategy that’s going to get students to see it anew for the first time. So, one that is a little bit more kind of every day, I observed a theologian on my campus, who had her students engaged in an activity that was modeled on study of the Torah, the scholars studying the Torah use, which is she had the students get in pairs. And I was able to observe this class, they sat across from one another. And they were instructed to read out loud to each other the first few paragraphs of Genesis, but after every sentence, they were supposed to stop and say, “Okay, what do I see here?” Like, “What does this remind me of? What word is strange here? What do I notice here that connects to other things that we’ve talked about in the class?” And this went on for like 20 minutes. And some people only got like two paragraphs in like a 20-minute exercise of doing this. But, it was incredible to listen to what they came up with. And I stayed in the class and listened to some students afterwards. One student said, “I’m from an evangelical background, I’ve read these passages so many times, but I’ve never thought about some of the things that we talked about today.” And so it was a way to kind of reawaken them to something that was very familiar and that she could have got up there and given a lecture on things in the first book of Genesis, but the students uncovered it themselves, and were able to do that. So, I actually kind of talked through a process that was developed by someone at the teaching center at Brown University, which is trying to model like, very close looking at something in your discipline. And you start by just sort of doing that, “what is it?” Like, “What is here? Let’s really get in and describe it as much as possible.” And then the second thing we do is we say, “Okay, so what? Why is it important? What matters about it? What does it connect to in terms of other things that we know or are learning?” And the last thing is sort of “Where can we go from here?” Like, what questions does this raise that we can then go and think further about, or for example, that I might go and write a paper about or do some research about?” So, the careful look at it, then the thinking about how it connects outside of that thing to other things? And then the “Okay, now let’s go further, I’m going to develop my own kind of way of thinking about and understanding this thing.” You know, John Dewey, a long time ago, had students doing object analysis, where they would analyze like everyday things in their homes, or like that they encounter on an everyday basis, and trace those everyday things: “Who made it? What is the production of it, say about like, our economy and our world?” And you know, you can do that with anything, and almost any discipline, right? Like this t-shirt I’m wearing, right? Who made that t-shirt? That has huge implications for, like economics and politics and trade and inviting that kind of activity into the classroom seems to me like something that can help students see the discipline in a new way, and then re-engage their attention to show them this course actually has relevance and connections to things outside of the box of this classroom.
John: When in the classroom, one possible source of distraction, which I know you’ve written about before in the Chronicle and other places, is mobile devices. When we’re in a classroom environment, how can we help students use their mobile devices more effectively.
Jim: So, I think we have to be explicit about them. So, when we have those conversations at the beginning of the semester, I actually recommend in the book, an open source PowerPoint presentation that anyone can get and use. It was developed by a psychology instructor at the University of Toronto, which kind of shows students some of the issues that we face when we’re using our devices in the classroom. And of course, when students are using their devices off task in the classroom, it impacts their own learning, of course. We all know that. But, the bigger challenge is the way that impacts the students around them. And there is some pretty good research that shows that if a student is off task on a device, other students are drawn to that device, and that steals their attention away from whatever might be going on in the classroom. So, I think we have to talk to students about that, We have to say, “Look, you know, your device use is not just a personal choice that you’re making that has no broader implications. It does have broader implications, it has the potential to kind of tamp down the overall level of attention in this classroom.” And again, I think when we make that appeal, we need to do it on community grounds, right? Like, we owe each other our attention in this space. And we are all going to benefit from people’s contributions and those contributions are going to be richer, if we’re paying attention to one another, if we’re thinking together about the ideas. So, I’m not in favor, actually, of sort of full technology bans. I’m also not in favor of saying we should never have a technology ban. I argue in the book for a context-driven policy, which suggests that there may be times when we say no one needs their devices, right now, we’re going to talk about what this means. And you don’t need to take notes on that by hand or by device. There are other times when I may be lecturing, and you can use your devices, or you can take your notes by hand. There are times when we’re going to be having a discussion, you know, you can write down something if you’re so moved, but otherwise, I’d rather have us focus on one another here. We’re gonna be doing an activity and everyone’s going to go to the board, so you don’t need your devices for that. I’m segmenting off sections of the board here, and I want everyone to brainstorm a list of these five things. To me, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to say, we’re never gonna use technology in here, or there’s just an open technology policy, which we can use any time. It depends on what’s going on. And I think if we take that approach, that also helps us be better planners, because we have to think about “Okay, well, what is going to be happening in the first 20 minutes, and would that benefit from technology use? Or couldn’t some students benefit from that?” If so, okay, then great, I’m gonna be explicit about that. But, there may be these other times where it’s gonna do nothing but interfere. And at those times, I want to be able to say, you don’t need your device right now.
Rebecca: I think that makes perfect sense. Right now, I’m teaching synchronously online. So, I’m exploring some different ways of using technology and different ways that pure distraction might play out in a screen environment. Do you have any thoughts about how we can help students attend to each other more so in an online environment? Sometimes it’s a little more obvious, I think, in a physical environment of how to set things up, and maybe not as obvious in an online environment.
Jim: It’s definitely not as obvious whether people are distracted in their online environments, right? Because they can have their phone right next to the laptop. And I’m sure we have all done this in our zoom meetings, department meetings, or whatever committee meetings where things get a little slow, you pop over and you do something else for a little while, and then you come back in. And again, I think, even an online class, we can be explicit about that, when you’re stopping out like that you’re pausing your own thinking, and that’s going to lead to a sort of a less rich conversation for us all. When students have their cameras on, it’s a little bit easier to see obvious sources of distractions. But, of course, I think we do need to give students the option to not have those cameras on for a variety of reasons. To me, because I think about, as I’ve been doing workshops …and a lot of the faculty workshops that I do on other campuses, of course, have switched virtual… what I’ve seen a lot is that the people will actively engage with the chat room. So, when the chat room is there and is explicitly encouraged, that can be a way that keeps people engaged. In some ways, it’s not quite ideal, because people can also get off track in the chat room. I’ve definitely seen that happen as well. But, trying to find regular ways to make sure that people are engaged in parallel activities, or something that’s kind of supporting whatever it is that’s going on. You can still use polling, you can use chat rooms, you can use breakout rooms, you just have to think about the same thing that you think about in the classroom. How am I continuing to provide sort of variety and shifting from one kind of activity to the next. People always talk about like, well, you lose students attention over the course of a 50- or 75-minute lecture, you lose people’s attention over 50- or 75-minute discussion too. Anything that you do for a long period of time, your attention is going to fatigue. So, to me, there is no like one pedagogical technique online or in face to face that’s like this is going to keep people’s attention, guaranteed, for everyone in the room for this amount of time. That’s just not realistic expectations. So, we just have to think about how we are providing that kind of variety, giving people opportunities to actively engage. And kind of what I encourage people to do is what I did during the two years while I was researching the book, and what I’ve been doing over the last six months in my online environments, is just look at like when do people pay attention? When do people get off track? We can learn from those moments. That’s what I’m essentially trying to argue to faculty as well. And what I hope the book will do is get people together on campuses and say, “Okay, let’s just think about this collectively. When do our students drift off? And like, why is that happening? When do our students get really engaged? Why is that happening? And how can we take the sort of engagement moments and maximize what’s happening there, and take the distraction moments and use those as an opportunity to develop creative new approaches?” So, for the online classes, I just encourage people to think about what have their experiences been in your Zoom meetings and your webinars and things that you’ve done when you’re a participant. What’s helped you, and what’s brought you back, and what sent you away? I’ll just say one last thing about it. To me, in the Zoom context, or like a synchronous online class is one of the lines of research I follow in the book, is the use of names, we all perk up at the use of our names. So, if John was drifting right now, and I said, “John, what do you think?”, he’s gonna “What?” If he was drifting, he’s suddenly back in the room, right? So like, even if you don’t have cameras on, you can still be saying, “I’m regularly gonna invite people to post in the chat or to see if they have comments. And I’ll do that by calling your names.” Just even saying that it’s going to get people “Okay, you know what, I need to be kind of attentive here.” But once I actually say, “Hey, Rebecca, what do you think? You know, boom, you are like right there. So, there are simple things like that, that we can do that help. There’s no sure fire solution online or face to face, we just have to keep trying these different approaches.
Rebecca: One of the things I really love is the fact that there are names.
Jim: Yes, I know. Right? Exactly.
Rebecca: That’s amazing. [LAUGHTER]
Jim: Yeah, the first couple weeks in class, it’s hard to do that sometimes. Right? Because you’re still learning everyone’s names.
Rebecca: Yeah. What I noticed about what you were just saying, though, is using this object-based learning or close-look approach on ourselves or within the teaching arena. So this area that we want to study teaching…
Rebecca: …you’re actually offering up the suggestion that we do the same thing that we’re suggesting that our students should do within our disciplines.
Jim: Yeah, that’s true, actually, you’re taking a look at the classroom, but through this other lens. We look at it through all kinds of lenses. But, I think if you look at it through the lens of attention and distraction, to me, that’s like an avenue toward creative new thinking. And that’s kind of ultimately what we want here. This is basically the same approach I tried to take in Cheating Lessons, which is to look at like the issue of academic integrity, where does it happen and why? And then say, “Okay, once we understand that, what can we do differently? And how can we use that problem to improve education in general?” And that’s kind of what I’m trying to do here with attention to distraction? How can we use the problem of distraction to help us become better teachers in general?
John: Does your book also address issues of how we can help our students maintain focused attention when they were engaged in out-of-class activities?
Jim: This is a really challenging issue. So, one of the things I’d hoped to find in doing the research for the book was that strategies that people have touted as improving our general attentional capacities, that there are some of those that work. And the truth is, there doesn’t seem to be as much of that as we would like, especially evidence-based strategies that can sort of improve people’s attentional capacities. So, the one that’s been the most thoroughly researched in education in recent years has been mindfulness. So, if we practice mindfulness, to what extent can that actually improve our ability to pay attention? And there is some research that supports that, but it supports it if you are really all in on it, like you’ve got to be doing mindfulness on a daily basis for a significant chunk of time. And you’ve got to be really willing to make that commitment to mindfulness. When you do that, it can help. But we don’t have the ability to do that with our students, for the most part. And most of the experiments that you see being done in this area are like three- to five-minute little mindfulness activities in the classroom. I’m a fan of those, I think those can be really great and helping in the moment. We can help sort of in acute… like we can improve our attentional spins in an acute way. But, in terms of like developing strategies that are going to help students actually improve their attentional capacities in the long term, and outside of the classroom, I’m not sure we have anything yet that has proven to do that. Well, we do have one thing, but again, it’s nothing we should be doing in the classroom, it’s physical exercise, like physical activity improves your blood flow to your brain. And that improves all kinds of your cognitive functioning. But again, we can tell our students to do that, but it’s not like something we can enforce or get our students to do in the classroom. But, I look at some of the research in a great book on distraction called The Distracted Mind by Adam Gazaley and Larry Rosen, and they do a pretty good job of looking at like brain games and drugs and mindfulness and nature exposure. And their conclusion is, so far, we really only know one thing that is evidence based to improve people’s cognitive control, and it’s physical exercise. Everything else, we’re still not sure yet, like we’re exploring. There may be some positive studies here, but, we don’t really have enough to make it prescriptive yet.
Rebecca: Seems to me like something that could be useful to students outside of classes, just having them be aware of attention.
Rebecca: …and what being attentive looks like, so that they can self monitor, if they so wish.
Jim: Absolutely. We can give them the sort of tools and instruction they need, and we can give ourselves the same. As the result of doing all this research, I’ve kind of realized that, in my own work life, there are things that I can do with my email and my Twitter feed open, like responding to emails and doing sort of committee work, that kind of stuff. But, if I want to write, I have to close everything out. And you know, since the whole pandemic thing, the weather has been better, I got in my backyard, I close everything out, and I just have Word open, and I do that for 45 minutes and then I get myself a 15-minute break, right? I take a walk around, I look at Twitter, that kind of thing. So, we need to do the same kind of look at our own attentional patterns and like habits and distractions. And we can encourage students to do that. We can help them understand how to do that. It’s up to them ultimately, of course, to decide whether or not they’re going to put those ideas into practice. We can also model for it in the classroom, though, and that’s another reason why I argue that there may be times when it’s a good idea to say to students “All devices away at this point for 20 minutes here, we are going to just brainstorm. We are going to think with nothing but our brains and the book or the problem, or whatever it might be, and the whiteboards, and let’s just try to come up with something. One of the things I suggest in the book is that devices and distractions are around us all the time. That’s our normal way of being. And we want to be able to prepare students for that world. That’s why I argue that we shouldn’t ban technology. We’re gonna be working with technology, like we need to know how to work productively with it. At the same time, it may be that there’s good reason to think that the classroom sometimes is an escape from all that, that the classroom is like an attention retreat, where we can go, put away all that stuff, and use our brains in a different way. And it may be that the more technology sort of intersects with our lives on an everyday, 24-hour, basis, that those spaces are really valuable, actually, and that they give students a taste of what it’s like to put things away and just focus our collective brains on something and see what emerges from that. And if we can give them the opportunity to do that in the classroom, then they may recognize, “Oh, you know, actually, this was really valuable. And there may be times when I want to do it myself outside of the classroom with a few peers, or even just by myself.
Rebecca: I certainly have had students in the past have experienced really stressful times, say like, they’re all in on a particular class or something, because it’s an escape, and it’s a place where they can focus and they put all their attention there. And I think a lot of students are doing that right now, during the pandemic, as well. I have a lot of students that are really focused right now on some of their schoolwork, because they’re stressed by other things that are going on around them.
Jim: Yeah, my last Chronicle column was a review of a book called Lost in Thought, by Zena Hitz. And one of the things she argues and that is that we need to recapture the value of just sort of getting lost in our own thoughts and engaging with ideas and the great thinkers and problems of the past and present. And part of the argument she makes is that when we do that, we have an opportunity to get away from our material circumstances, right? …like the world that we’re living in. And that kind of escape can be really valuable. It’s valuable, both for sort of mental health purposes, like, you know, you step away, and you get to sort of engage with something fascinating and intriguing, and get into kind of like a flow state or a thinking state. But, it’s also valuable, because it can give you a new perspective, like, that’s the moment which you might come up with, like a really creative idea. And I bet almost everybody listening to this podcast right now has had moments where they’re like in the shower, on a walk in the woods, riding their bike, whatever, and something suddenly hits them, and then a problem that they’ve been wrestling with opens up. What’s going on there is you are away from the other stuff. In those moments, that’s where the ideas sometimes emerge. So again, sometimes ideas emerge because you’re online, and you’re seeing all kinds of different stuff. And that’s great. But we want to have these other opportunities as well. And so the classroom should be able to provide a little bit of that for students as well.
Rebecca: I found that some students also respond really well to hearing examples from us of our experiences with attention or lack of focus and how we’ve wrestled with those things. I know that this morning, my class was talking about being tired or having anxiety, and I just expressed that I was also experiencing that as well. And all of a sudden, like we were all in the same place, we were all attentive to each other because we had this kind of common experience.
Jim: Yeah, one of the other major points I hope people take away from the book is just empathy, to recognize that attention is hard. And it’s especially hard in a time like this, when there’s so much going on in the world around us. When we have the pandemic, we’ve got an upcoming election, we’ve got Black Lives Matter. We have all kinds of things that are making us concerned or unhappy or frustrated or anxious. And so those things steal away our attention. And we have to be empathetic to ourselves. First, we have to recognize that our own attention is suffering right now. And then we have to bring that empathy to our students as well. A student who’s drifting away in the classroom. Sure, that can be because they’re looking at their Instagram, but maybe they’re looking at their Instagram, because they’re so stressed out. And this is kind of an easy thing that they do that gives them a quick little relief from everything else that they’re worrying about. Or maybe they’re drifting away in the classroom because they had a terrible night’s sleep, and they’re up with a sick relative. I mean, attention is drawn away, not just by our devices, but by all kinds of things. The more that we recognize that and the more that we are empathetic with our students, the more we can work with them to develop solutions.
John: You mentioned the importance of attention by both students and by faculty. We’ve talked mostly about students’ attention. Do you have any suggestions for faculty on how we can be more effective in maintaining attention to our students and their needs at any given time.
Jim: It’s just the basic stuff that we all think about in terms of the responsibilities that we have to build community in the classroom are essentially the ones I’m arguing for in the book as well. Names are important, knowing individual names, I argue in the book also for an activity like values affirmations in which students get to tell you what matters to them at the beginning of the semester. So, we can do our icebreaker activities in which hometown major, you know, all that kind of stuff. But, to get more substantive, and to get to know the students a little bit better. Invite them to tell you what matters to them what they’re good at, and to be able to kind of then keep those things in your mind and use them in the conversations that you have with students or in the feedback that you give to students. Giving individual feedback, thinking about how we’re doing that, using students’ names, and knowing a little bit about the assets that they bring into the classroom, I think there’s been a lot of good research on the ways that we can help foster community in the classroom. And to me, those are the things that are going to help foster attention as well. Attention is reciprocal. If I pay attention to you, you’re more likely to pay attention to me. If we’re sitting at a coffee shop together, and we’re there to meet and discuss something, and you pick up your phone, that’s the moment in which I’m going to pick up my phone as well. Whereas if neither of us does that, if none of us makes that initial move, we’re probably more likely to continue the conversation with one another and pay attention to each other. So, when our attention is drawn away from the students, when we’re not giving them our full attention, they’re not going to give us their full attention either.
John: Is there anything else from your book that you’d like to share with our listeners,
Jim: The only other thing that I talk about in the book that might be worth mentioning is the role that assessment can play in attention. And I do believe there is a role for assessment to play in supporting attention. And what I argue here is that your great students are going to try to pay attention to everything that happens in class. Your students that are struggling, that may have a harder time managing their academic work, those students actually can benefit from assessments which help them recognize this is a moment where I really should be paying attention in this class. And if an assessment is well designed, and it’s going to promote learning, then I think we’re only doing them a favor by helping students recognize “This is an important thing here, this matters.” And that can be low stakes. But, even low stakes can get some students over the threshold of “I’m going to sit here and check out” or “I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing here. So, I’m not going to say anything, I’m gonna hide in the back.” The students saying “Okay, actually, this counts a little bit. So, I better try and trying is going to help them.” So like, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thinking about the role that our assessments can play in pointing students toward the activities that are going to help them learn. So, I argue for that in the book as well, that assessments do have a role to play in this process.
John: And it’s not just low-stakes assessments, I’ve been amazed at how much attention and enjoyment students get out of using things like Kahoot!, which is entirely anonymous, but just that feedback they’re getting on how well they’re doing and that somewhat competitive atmosphere with it, where there’s no harm if they make mistakes, but they become really excited about how they do on those.
Jim: Yeah, “I want to see if I got it, right,” like “I’m trying this, I want to see if I got it right.” Because that’s gonna tell me how I’m gonna do in the class. And so, those kinds of activities, I think, can be really helpful for engaging attention.
John: And it’s giving the students feedback, but also giving us feedback. So, we know where they’re struggling, so we can help address those needs.
Rebecca: I think projects are also another form of assessment that we didn’t discuss right here. But, I think even having small amounts of scaffolded projects where there’s something that like, is done and accomplished, and you can check it off, is another way of kind of feeling accomplishment, but also being aware that you’re focusing on the things that you’re supposed to be focusing on, to move forward in a larger scale project.
Jim: Exactly, and like a lot of this stuff, that scaffolding is good for all kinds of reasons. And one of those reasons is, as we just said, like I can go through, I can check it off, I know that this is important. So, I have to get it done before I can do the next thing. That’s going to keep their attention engaged throughout that process of doing a larger project.
John: And it reduces cognitive load…
John: …it reduces the amount of anxiety they have, and they’re getting guidance along the way. So, they don’t go off in a direction that it’s hard to recover from later.
Jim: Right. And anxiety and cognitive load are all connected with attention, [LAUGHTER] like anxiety, it steals our attention. When the cognitive load is too heavy, we lose our attention. So, all these things. You know, attention is like one of these things that, once you to start really thinking about it, it intersects with everything. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: That’s why it should be a value. [LAUGHTER]
Jim: Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. Yeah.
John: Yeah, well, I hope this gets the attention of a lot of our listeners [LAUGHTER]
Jim: Well done.
John: …so they can focus more attention.
Rebecca: We always end by asking, what’s next?
Jim: Well, I’m on sabbatical. So, I am writing a book. And for the first time, I’m kind of going back to my discipline. I’ve been doing sort of off-and-on research on George Orwell for a long time. My area Is 20th century and contemporary British literatures. So, I am using this sabbatical as an opportunity to try and get that book project going. And I hope to be able to have a book. or at least a good chunk of a book, by the end of my sabbatical. There also is a second edition of Small Teaching that we’re working on. And so that will be out at the end of 2021. So, that’s a second edition, which will have updated research, some updated recommendations for techniques, and, actually, there is going to be a chapter on building community. So they’ll be an additional chapter. And so I’m excited for that as well.
Rebecca: That’s like a lot of things to look forward to.
John: And living in the Orwellian world we’re in right, now… [LAUGHTER] I’m very much looking forward to that.
Jim: Yeah, definitely. There’s definitely a lot of relevance there. And that’s why I hope the book will get some attention. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Nicely done. Thanks so much for joining us and sharing your expertise. And I know that I’m definitely looking forward to picking up your recent book, and I’m sure many of our listeners will too.
Jim: All right. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
John: Thank you.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.