Study: What Earns Student Attention in College Classrooms

A recent report uses eye tracking and gaze interaction to reveal new results.

A recent study contradicts the belief that students lose focus in the classroom after 15 minutes.
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There is a belief among many educators that student attention peaks during the first 15 minutes of classroom instruction—a misconception, according to a recent study completed at Kennesaw State University.

In order to explore the factors that play a part in student attention spans, eight college students were equipped with eye-tracking glasses during 75-minute pre-elementary education physical science lectures at the university. The result of the four-month pilot revealed that classroom attention is not so linear, said David Rosengrant, an associate professor of physics at Kennesaw State who conducted the study, in a press release.

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In fact, according to the study, one action that can impact whether students maintain their focus during the lecture is dependent on where they sit in the classroom. The study's authors "noticed that students in the front and middle of the classroom" stayed on task, while students who sat in the back of the classroom were more distracted.

Professors face many issues to vie for their students' attentions in the classroom—texting, social media, and in-class chatter among students, to name a few—but there are steps educators can take to refocus the class during a lecture, the study's authors note.

[The use of smartphones in the classroom concerns some professors.]

"When the professor became very animated, drew something on the board, injected humor or if he was using analogies that were not listed in the power point [sic] slides then the students tended to watch him," the authors write.

According to the study, students also appeared to pay more attention when the professor went over answers from a quiz, introduced a new slide or information, or shared videos with the classroom. But one action that many professors take, which may be popular among students, could have an impact on in-class focus: offering notes from the lecture before the start of class.

"[I]f students printed out notes available to them before lecture … they seemed to pay less attention to the board," the study's authors write, "and tended to get off task quicker than those students who had to copy everything down."

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