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Tutor Tips: How to capture and hold the attention of easily distracted students

In this month’s Tutor Tips we are investigating various techniques which help capture and hold the attention of easily distracted students. A common problem for tutors who have a set amount of work to get through each lesson and for students who are often tired after a long day at school.

Popular belief states that the average attention span for students is short: ranging from 10 to 15 minutes. However there is significant evidence to suggest this might not be true – and indeed, that it might be impossible to accurately measure a student’s attention span in the first place.

However, what researchers have found is that there is a clear relationship between levels of attention and active learning. Learning methods such as demonstrations and questions resulted in fewer wandering minds in lectures studied. As tutors we need to assume a student’s attention will waver while we are teaching and therefore plan our lessons accordingly.

Here are some useful tips:

1. Change the level and tone in voice – this will help to bring students from zone-out sessions.

2. Use props and/or visuals – presenting a striking image allows students to initiate dialogue and get more involved.

3. Write/give them a challenging question – with a basic comprehension question related to the topic and getting the student to answer it, this will help get students focused instantly, and allow for a discussion later.

4. Choose relevant examples – give students examples and scenarios they encounter on a daily basis.

5. Teach at the right level of difficulty – material that is too hard or difficult will result in student inattention.

6. Involve students in lessons – don’t just lecture, stop and ask students questions about the topic you are teaching them.

7. Use humour – students appreciate teachers who can incorporate humour into lessons.

8. Plan carefully and fully; make the plan apparent to students – students will lose focus if the objectives and plan for the lesson are not clear to them.

9. Introduce change and surprise – when our environment shifts, we start paying attention. A good rule of thumb is to switch things up every 15 minutes or so – tell a joke or a story, show a picture, address your topic in a different way.

10. Stress relevance and concreteness – the human mind can’t handle too much abstraction. Bring your ideas down to earth by explaining how they connect to students’ lives.

Sometimes material can be too hard for the student and result in the student becoming distracted. That’s when I make sure I stop myself and get back to basics so we can work on a concept together until it is all understood. Getting students involved is really important. It works best for me to ask questions back. What do you think about that? Or how would you try and solve this problem? Being excited about certain material also makes them excited!

Kati Boettner (Maths tutor)

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