Written by Jane Hammons, Teaching and Learning Engagement Librarian with University Libraries Teaching and Learning Department
What can librarians and instructors learn from Shakespeare and other playwrights or composers that we can use to get, and keep, students’ attention in the classroom?
In Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, James M. Lang explores the topic of distraction and makes recommendations for strategies we can use to cultivate students’ attention. While his book was not intended specifically for librarians, many of the strategies are ones that librarians could use to help capture students’ interest. As Lang notes, “Teaching fails when we can no longer focus our students’ attention” (pg. 5). And so, thinking about, and strategically incorporating, practices to garner students’ attention should be one of our key focus areas when planning an instruction session, workshop, or course.
Before diving into the strategies, Lang takes some time to explore the broader issue of attention and distraction. He describes a narrative that is likely familiar to many of us, which is the idea that at one point in time, we all were able to focus. But now, thanks to all of our devices, we have lost that ability. Lang, however, challenges this notion, stating that “we have been sidetracked” by “assertive voices who lay the entire blame for our distractible natures at the feet of our laptops and phones” (p. xiii). Instead, Lang argues that we have always been distracted, providing examples of complaints about the inability to concentrate that are found throughout history, well before the first smartphone. Distraction, Lang argues, is natural to humans. And so, rather than focusing on strategies for avoiding distraction, such as banning technology in the classroom, Lang proposes that we instead focus on strategies that we can use to get attention. Lang insists that it is possible for us to get and keep students’ attention but that this must be something that we cultivate deliberately.
And this is where the reference to Shakespeare and other playwrights and composers come in, for these are folks who are regularly able to get, and keep, people’s attention for long periods of time. Based on these examples, and other research into learning, Lang provides several strategies that instructors can use to help keep students focused. A few examples include:
- Create a sense of community in the classroom. As Lang notes, we are social beings, and “we are built to pay attention to other human beings…” (pg. 98). Having students interact with other students in groups or pairs can help them to stay on task.
- Use students’ names. As we know from those times when we hear our name shouted out in a crowd, “our names have tremendous power to capture our attention” (pg. 107). While this can be challenging for librarians teaching one-shot sessions, there are things that you can do, such as temporary or erasable name tents, that can allow you to use students’ names even during a one-shot setting.
- Move students, and yourself, around. While this is not always possible due to room configurations, having students move around, or making sure that you move to different places in the classroom, can help to refocus attention. When possible, Lang recommends that you “make your movements around the room deliberate” by standing near different groups of students. He encourages you to “join them in their space” rather than remaining behind the invisible plane that often separates teachers from the students (p. 119).
- Make students curious. Rather than starting with an overview of learning objectives, start with a question or activity intended to get students interested in the content of the session. For example, show an image and have them consider how that might be related to the overall theme of the class session.
- Make it modular. Think of an instruction session of consisting of several different short modules, and have each module be a different kind of event or activity. For example, a short lecture followed by a group activity followed by a demonstration followed by an individual writing activity. When possible, try to follow a passive activity, such as a lecture, with a something more active, so that students are switching between modes. As Lang notes, attention degrades over time, so each time you switch between modules it is a chance to recapture attention.
- Think like a composer or playwright and provide transitions and signposts. Similar to the point above, plays are broken into different acts, with each new act being another chance to regain the audience’s attention. In addition, the audience usually is given a program that provides them with clues to what is coming up and allows them to reorient themselves if they get lost. Providing a similar structure can also help get students’ attention.
As you review this list, you may be thinking that you already do many of these things, just as general best practices related to teaching. In this context, the key is thinking about these strategies as tactics for getting and keeping students’ attention, and making sure you are being deliberate about how you employ them in the pursuit of attention.
Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Basic Books.