Have you ever been told that to keep students engaged you should chunk lectures into ten minute segments? Neil Bradbury, a Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral studies at the Rosalind Franklin University of Science and Medicine, investigated the origins of this myth. In this episode, Neil joins us to discuss his review of the research on student attention spans.
- Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.
- Bradbury, N. A. (2016). Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more?. Adv Physiol Educ, 40, 509-513.
John: Have you ever been told that to keep students engaged you should chunk lectures into ten minute segments? In this episode, we examine the origins of this myth about student attention.
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.
John: Our guest today is Neil Bradbury. Neil is a Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral studies at the Rosalind Franklin University of Science and Medicine. Welcome, Neil.
Neil: Thank you. Nice to meet you.
John: Nice meeting you.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you for joining us. Today our teas are
Neil: Today I’m going to go with Lapsang Souchong.
Rebecca: Sounds like a great choice.
John: Very nice, I got some of that, too. I have to keep it separate though because it has a smoky smell and it blends with the rest.
Neil: Yes it does have a strong, smoky smell.
Rebecca: And today I have vanilla chai.
John: I have Yorkshire Gold tea.
Your two thousand and sixteen paper on student attention span has gotten quite a bit of interest on a number of email lists and professional development groups and that’s where I first saw it. What prompted your interest in this topic? It’s a bit different than your usual research.
Neil: It is a little different. I have gone to various teaching institutional days and I had been told of this ten-minute rule, and naturally I accepted it because that was what the elite was telling me. And then shortly before I started looking into this, our medical school, like many medical schools in the country, was revising its curriculum entirely over the entire four years… and it was in a meeting with the Dean going through the new curriculum where he mentioned again, “I now have to stop because I’ve been talking for 10 minutes and so I need to do something different…. and I thought to myself “Well, that’s interesting, I wonder where this notion comes from?” …and I decided I was going to find out, because everyone told me ten minutes is the rule, ten minutes is the rule, but no one knew where it came from… and so I decided that I would have a look at this and if indeed it was the case I should be taking notice of this when I’m teaching… if it’s not the case, where did it come from? Where did this apparent educational myth arise? So that was really what started my interest in this… looking for where the source of this myth was.
John: I have the same sort of thing… I just took it as given, I’ve seen that said so many times and seen it in so many books and papers and recommendations, that I also took this as given. One of the things I’ve always used to judge the quality of someone’s presentation on teaching and learning is whether they start mentioning learning styles, or they put up a picture of Dale’s Cone of Learning, because those are myths that are pretty well known and pretty well established, but this one I think a lot of us had taken as a given…. there must be some research on… or we wouldn’t keep hearing it so much, and we should have known better. So what did you find when you began to investigate this? Where did this rule come from?
Neil: When I was looking through this, as you say, it’s often repeated, and people make the statements and then refer to a paper that was published many years ago… and when I eventually tracked down all the references, I did eventually come to a paper that was published in the fifties… and much to my surprise, the paper actually didn’t mention attention span at all in any of the words, which was a little curious since this is the basis that everyone uses for the ten-minute attention span. And what I found was that, in actual fact, the paper does not describe attention at all, but rather note taking…. and even more curious is that a subsequent publication by these authors even stated that they felt that note taking was no basis for discerning attention span anyway. So I think the whole propagation… and to be fair it’s the original authors, they did not say that this was looking at attention span… but somehow it’s got changed over the years… saying that they were looking at attention span of ten minutes, and that got propagated through the literature, and propagated by people who were looking not at the primary literature, but at someone else’s interpretation of the literature and it just propagates without anyone actually going back to the primary literature.
John: It’s nice that you did. It’s about time someone did and thank you for doing that.
Rebecca: I think it’s so important in the day we’re really focused on the idea of evidence-based teaching that we do remind ourselves that we should be looking at the evidence and not just taking things for granted.
John: And in your paper you also mention that there were some potential flaws in some of the early studies on note taking. What were the major flaws in some of that early work?
Neil: I think that some of the major flaws were really in experimental design. As a scientist, I spend a lot of effort pre-planning my experiments, often taking more time to plan the experiment than to do the experiment, and I found that a lot of these lacked really rigorous planning. So, for example, one study involved two lecturers that went in to observe a class, and in the paper, they stated that more often than not at least one person turned up to investigate attention. Well, if you’ve only got two people looking at student attention and only one of them occasionally turns up, it’s hard to take anything seriously that comes out of that study. So, a lot of things like that. One of the things that, as a scientist, I particularly have to take notice of is statistical rigor and we have to take care to provide instruction in what statistics we’re using and whether or not our statistics are valid. Many of the studies just state categorically, “our results were statistically significant” with no indication as to what those statistics were but then that gets repeated by the next person who just blithely states “oh, well this person states that it was significant” and just the takes that for granted, and so it gets propagated.
John: …and it might have been significant at the sixty percent level or something similar, if they don’t specify…
Neil: We don’t know because, it’s never mentioned in the papers.
John: …and one of the things you mention, in one of those early studies of note taking was that it may have been perhaps more of a measure, I think, of the content of the presentation rather than student attention.
Neil: Yes, I think it’s important when we’re considering lectures as to really fundamentally what the purpose of a lecture is, and I clearly don’t think that the purpose of a lecture is to have students take notes as the end result of a lecture. The notes should be something that the student refers to at the end of the lecture to remind them of what was covered. Now certainly note taking is important, but we don’t take notes on everything. So, for example, when I’m giving lectures I’m trying to convey a certain concept that may be difficult or it may be easy, but I try and give some illustrations of how that concept can be applied to real-life situations. Often, as it turns out, one of the things I like to do is discuss how my concepts can be applied to understanding how people use different drugs to murder people.
Now I don’t really expect students to take copious notes on how to murder someone they don’t like.
Neil:So, that may be… the students would not take notes on, that’s just a little bit of fun and interest. The physiology underlying that? Then yes, that’s important to take notes on. So, you need to think about what’s being discussed. Is it important to take notes on that? Other things? No, it’s not important to take notes on. So I think there’s a balance there… that you can’t just take notes across the entire lecture, it’s really what’s being conveyed by the teacher at that particular time as to whether the notes are worth taking or not.
John: …and students could be very engaged, but not taking notes, because they are actively processing the information and making connections. And there may be no need for notes if that part of the presentation is very clear and doesn’t give them new information they need to transcribe somehow.
Neil: Absolutely agree… and just staring at a teacher or writing notes doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re focused on what they’re doing.
Rebecca: …especially if the content of the notes aren’t really being evaluated, right? It could be notes on anything!
Neil: Well, I think we’ve all done that at some point. I think we’re all guilty of that, but you’re absolutely right, just taking notes for the sake of taking note has no intrinsic value either.
John: …and in one of the studies, you mention that the students were keeping track of their level of attention where they were periodically polled and they had to indicate their level of engagement, but that was done with two different classes: one with first-year students and the other with fifth-year students, but they didn’t hold constant the instructor. So, the results were very different across instructors.
Neil: I think that that’s true broadly ,that we have all experienced instructors in our own life that have been really wonderful and engaging, and we really enjoy going to. We’ve also had instructors that we really did not want to go and listen to. So, I think there is certainly a large component of the instruction that makes a big difference in how they present. I think the other difference is that when comparing a first year with a fifth year is a huge difference. A first year really does not have any basis for knowledge, they have very little understanding of what’s going on, and so any new knowledge that they get is a huge increase. Compared to someone in the fifth year, where they may be really not learning new things, but they’re adding to what they already know, and it’s a lot easier to learn when you already know things.
John: You have more connections there.
Neil: Trying to fit things into a model that you already have to further strengthen that, that’s really not that hard to do, compared to learning a concept from the start. So, I think there’s a big difference there, between first and fifth years on a lot of levels.
Rebecca: Why do you think note taking was conflated with attention in the first place?
Neil: I think it’s conflated because it is really hard to assess attention, and we all know that when we go to lectures, we’re supposed to take notes. I think that was conflated because note taking is something obvious that we can see. We think of attention and people paying attention to what’s going on… that goes on inside the brain and you can’t really see what’s going on inside the brain; whereas you can see people writing notes. I think that was just used as a surrogate because it was something that could be measured, not necessarily because it was a valid measure of something that was going on.
Rebecca: What were your biggest takeaway is from the survey of literature that you did?
Neil: I think the biggest thing that I’ve taken away is that, as a teacher, I don’t need to worry about keeping things as ten minutes. I can focus on a concept. I was thinking about this as I went with my family to the latest Star Wars movie. I was thinking “What if I watch Star Wars only in ten-minute segments? and that those segments were not connected with each other?” I don’t think anybody would go and see that movie. So the ten minutes attention span really doesn’t hold up for that… no other experience in life do we have or do anything that’s only ten minutes. Why would it be any different from a lecture? And so I have freed myself from having to worry about going in ten-minute blocks, and I can focus more on providing a conceptual framework for what I’m trying to cover.
John: Students don’t have any trouble watching an hour and a half or two and a half or three hour movie or sitting at an engaging video game for hours at a time, and they often require lots of learning and so forth… and we don’t really worry about the amount of time it takes on those activities. When I’ve gone to talks, there have been some talks I’ve been at that, within thirty seconds, I’d like to bolt for the door (or fall asleep) and there’s been others where I’ve been fascinated for an hour or more at a time.
Neil: I think it’s the latter that we’re trying to go for… and it would be nice if a student suddenly looks at that watch and says “Oh I’ve been here for two hours …where’s the time gone? It’s been so engaging.” That’s what I, as an instructor, am really trying to aim for… is not to have a student worrying about what they’re going to be doing in the next two minutes but to realize Wow, the lecture is over. It’s been worthwhile. I’ve learned something and I’m not really bothered what the time is.”
John: That’s always great when that happens, I wish it happened more often, but it’s great when students want to stick around and find out more and they’re not ready to leave at the end of the class.
Rebecca: Sounds to me like a lot of faculty probably need to spend more time figuring out how to make their lectures more engaging and to captivate their audience, rather than simply trying to break things up into smaller pieces, right? So you might not take communication style or things like that as seriously, but perhaps something that we need to invest more time in.
Neil: I agree, I think one of the questions that I always try and ask myself is “Why is what I’m teaching important? Am I teaching it because it’s there in the textbook or am I teaching it because it really is important?” …and if it’s important, I should be able to describe why it’s important… why you need to learn this…. and it shouldn’t be abstract, it should have application to what the students are to be doing. You need to learn this because it means that you can understand what’s coming next. Since I’m teaching a lot of medical students, why it’s going to make an impact upon health care of the patients you are going to be seeing. If I’m talking to chemistry students, you need to know this is what’s important because it’s going to dictate how you design your chemistry experiments. So, no matter what you’re teaching, I think you have to come up with reasons for why what you’re teaching is important, convince yourself it’s important, and then try to convince the students it’s important.
John: That’s a point that Ken Bain made in his book What The Best College Teachers Do. He suggests that you should start with the key concepts in each class, explain to students why those are really important… you explain to them they need to be able to do these things to be able to answer those big important questions that matter to them in some way. You mentioned before that first-year students often don’t have as rich of a network of concepts, and as a result there’s perhaps a bit more cognitive load that they have to deal with. Might there be some advantage of breaking up a presentation though into small chunks and then having them actively engage with the material before moving on to the next concept — in terms of keeping the cognitive load manageable?
Neil: I think there is some merit to that. I think it should be dictated by the material, rather than a clock, and so we can look at things and see where are the boundaries that make a unit of knowledge a reasonable unit… whether you can cover that in six minutes or fifteen minutes, I don’t think that matters, but can you have a coherent unit that can stand on its own that you can put together with other things. So, content is more important than the time allotted to it.
Rebecca: I think what you said about content is really important and as a designer there’s a methodology called “content first,” and it makes sense in a classroom setting too… where you decide what the content is and then design around that, right? There’s some things are going to make more sense to do hands on, some things that are in going to make more sense to provide a lecture on… and if you let the content dictate what it is that you do, it makes a lot of sense.
Neil: …and certainly, when you’re thinking about how you’re going to organize a lecture, you have certain content that you need to cover. But the order of that content is really important. You need to start out with the foundations before you can go to the building, and to start with those foundations, that may be small chunks. I agree that can be time limited, and that you could work on, and then as you getting more knowledge more content, you start building that up into a logical, coherent molecule. But, you’ve got to start with the basics first and then you can build onto larger structures.
Rebecca: It gets funny that, as experts in a particular topic, we forget that there’s building blocks and foundations because our mental models are so much more complex. So, I think although sometimes these things seem obvious, we need the reminders to take a step back and remember what it’s like to be a novice at something.
Neil: I agree. Most of my research is focused on cystic fibrosis and I’ve been doing that for many years, but I realize when I’m teaching that to students, they don’t have the decades of experience that I have. They are not going to become experts in an hour. What I’m trying to convey to them is the broad concepts and if they get those broad concepts, they don’t need to know the minutiae that intrigues me on a daily basis. But, they have to have the broader picture and so I have to put myself in a student’s position and understand from their position what they need to learn and even what they’re capable of learning at an early stage
John: Now, have you shared these results with your colleagues and how have they responded? Has this affected how they’re teaching?
Neil: As you might expect, it’s been somewhat of a mixed reaction. Some have really liked it, some have not really been that embracing of it. I remember we had a speaker from another institution who were discussing their new curriculum and they had designed their entire curriculum around 10 minutes… and I had the temerity to ask why that was the case and the response I got was “Well, everybody knows the attention span of students is only 10 minutes.” …and so… it happens, and it’s propagated, and I think most people really appreciate the fact that there really isn’t a lot of basis for this 10 minutes, but they don’t know that. They’ve heard and been told over and over again… it’s ten minutes. It turns out that’s not the case, so we don’t worry about, this is not something that you need to worry about. Plenty of other things to worry about when you’re teaching, but this is not one of them… So, don’t worry.
John: About ten years ago here, we had a guest speaker, whose name I won’t mention, but he gave a brilliant hour and fifteen minute talk on how a lecture is ineffective…. and later at a reception I went up to him and said “that was an incredibly good lecture… it was really engaging and dynamic and everyone seemed really interested,” and he did appreciate a little bit, I think, the irony of that comment.
Neil: Yes, I agree. I think the question is, “What is the point of a lecture?’ And I don’t think a lecture is really the place for student learning. That’s not where students learn. The point of a lecture is to convey information the students can learn later, but I think there also is an important point of inspiration. It should give students an understanding of why this is important and an appreciation for students to think “this is exciting, this is really fun stuff to learn.” If I can help students make their own decision that this is fun to learn, then I don’t have to worry about making it fun to learn. They’ve decided it’s fun and they’re going to invest effort in learning it themselves. And so part of my role as an instructor and a lecturer, is to get the students to appreciate something, that I think is true, is that learning is a lot of fun… it’s a fun thing to do and that it doesn’t matter what I’m learning… whether it’s the material I’m interested in or something completely different… it’s fun to learn… and if we can convey to students it’s fun to learn, they’ll be more than happy to learn things no matter what the instructor does.
Rebecca: Such a great point.
John: It is, and I also feel the same way about faculty. That we all got into this because we were among those students who found it fun to learn, but sometimes people forget that once they’ve been teaching for a while and it would be nice if we could also encourage each other to share that enthusiasm for learning.
Neil: Yeah, I think it’s important for faculty to go and visit each other’s lectures… how we can learn from each other. I’ve been working on my lecture style for many years, I doubt very much whether is the best lecture style going. It seems to be appreciated by the students, but I can always learn and improve. I only see it from one perspective, having faculty and colleagues come to my lectures, me going to their lectures can be of huge benefit in improving everybody’s teaching.
Rebecca: Is there something specific that you’re working on right now as a lecturer to improve?
Neil: With the new curriculum that we’re bringing in, there has been a large change in how we teach, and so that’s reflecting a lot on the content that we teach, and so I’m trying to come up with ways that integrate a lot of material across a lot of different disciplines. Which is proving to be a little bit of a challenge. As a physiologist, I’ve been teaching physiology. Trying to bring in other disciplines into the classes is proving to be a little bit of a challenge, but it’s also exciting and has a lot of opportunity that I can bring a lot of different aspects in. And I think that I’m going to learn a lot and hopefully that will be conveyed to the students… that we can all learn together something that we may not have covered before.
Rebecca: Sounds exciting but also very challenging.
Neil: That’s why we’re educators, we like challenge and those go together as educators.
Rebecca: Do you think after studying attention span in this way that it’s worth more study and to have others investigate attention or is it something that we’re spending too much time thinking about?
Neil: I think there is some basis for looking at other aspects. Most of what we’re focused on so far obviously is the lecture, but as we know now, the lecture is not the only teaching modality that we use. We have small groups, we also have lab practicals, we have discussions, and so far this attention span has only really focused on lectures. I think it would be informative to also look at other ways in which we teach, look at small group learning, look at peer learning, look at practical learning. I think that is going to be an interesting avenue to explore… is what is the attention span, by whatever criteria the define attention. Is that different from those modalities than a lecture? Is it the same? Is it different for each modality that we look at?
John: …and might it also vary by the topic you’re looking at? That some topics for many students would just be more interesting than others and that, I would assume, would vary quite a bit across students as well.
Neil: I think you’re right. Not everything that we cover is exciting and interesting. There are some things we just have to do because you need that knowledge, not because it’s exciting. But, that it allows you to get the exciting parts. So again coming back to knowing fundamentals and getting that basic groundwork that allows you to do the fun stuff later.
John: …and explaining to students why they need to know those basic, less fun, things helps provide them with a bit more motivation to work through it because they see where it’s going and how it’s connected.
Neil: Yes, you always have to have an endpoint… why this is important. It’s important because we’ve got to get to this position and this provides a pathway to get there, and once we’ve got there, a whole bunch of things will open up to you that you didn’t even realize.
Rebecca: Are you planning to do any more work on attention span or are you attention spanned-out?
Neil: Well I was thinking about it, but I got bored.
Neil:I’m really interested in looking at these different teaching modalities to see where that applies to different avenues, because we’ve only focused really on the lecture and that certainly has been a dominant component of education at the institution. We’re moving away from that… lectures are still important, but we’re also incorporating small group learning… peer learning…. and I think it’s going to be instructive to discover whether or not attention is really critical there. How can we get students, when they’re doing peer learning, to take this into account to make sure no one’s just falling off the edge and not learning anything. So I think it’s going to be exciting to increase our understanding of how students learn, how they’re attentive, how they’re focused on what they’re doing.
John: In your review of the literature, did you think of any good ways of addressing the question of attention span? Or is it, by its nature, impossible to measure well?
Neil: I think it’s a really difficult thing to measure because it is something that is going on inside people’s brains and that’s always a hard thing to measure. Certainly, we can put people into CAT machines and MRIs. But that’s probably not a good learning environment for anything. So I think it’s nebulous by its very nature. I think the important point is: “Are the students learning anything.” I don’t think necessarily what we’re covering in the lecture is the be all and end all. Some of the experiments that were performed, that I discussed in my paper, were evaluations of what students learned that were taken immediately after the lecture. But as I pointed out, no one ever does an examination immediately after the lecture… and so those kind of studies are really, to my mind, fairly meaningless. The question is, downstream a couple of weeks later, when we examine the students on the content of that material, have they learnt it then? And, I think, that’s when we really get to assess whether they were paying attention… not by looking at whether a student is taking notes during a particular lecture, not by asking them questions immediately after the lecture, but whether they’ve really spent time going over that material, and again, and again so that they can adequately answer questions two or three weeks later when we examine them on the material.
Rebecca: So it almost might be whether or not they’re engaged and motivated enough to want to continue pursuing that information, so that they can pass those exams and things a couple weeks later… and not really whether or not they’re paying attention in the moment that it’s introduced.
John: …and that ties back to the inspirational role of lectures that you suggested earlier.
Neil: Yes, we should inspire students to want to learn. We can never just force feed students information… it’s just gonna bounce back. We have to inspire students to want to learn for themselves, and that’s what effective teachers do. They don’t teach, they get the students to learn themselves because they’re excited about learning.
John: Very good. Well thank you, this was fascinating.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much for spending some time with us today.
Neil: Well, I enjoyed it and thank you for this opportunity to discuss the paper, I really enjoyed it.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.