From The Archives: Attention Spans and Long Classes

Universities and colleges have had to become flexible in course offerings.  Many students have to work full-time or part-time jobs while completing their studies.  This requires many schools to offer night classes or classes that meet once a week for 3 or 4 hours.  For some courses, like garment construction or painting, having a long stretch in the classroom is ideal.  Yet other courses can be very difficult to conduct in long sittings.  Long lectures have always presented a challenge in keeping the students engaged.

Infograph on the effects of social media is courtesy of Social Times


However, social media has deeply impacted attention spans.  Scientific studies have proven that the average attention span has decreased from 12 minutes to 5 minutes in the last 10 years.  Surfing the web for just 5 hours changes the way our brains work.  Coupled with long hours of work, you must have a strategy to engage your students when teaching a long class or evening class.  Here are some tips:


  • Adjust the food policy in your classroom: Allowing students to have drinks and snacks helps to keep them awake.  Many of your students may have come straight from working an 8 hour day to your class.  Let them eat so their focus is on the course content and not their empty stomach.
  • Keep the room cool: Warm rooms are a sure way to put students to sleep.  Make sure the classroom is cool to keep everyone awake and focused.
  • Start with a review of the last class: Remind everyone of what was perviously covered.  This allows some time for everyone to easy into discussions.  Reviewing content is always helpful, and often acts as a natural springboard for discussing new content.
  • Have several small breaks throughout the class: Several shorter breaks are more useful than one long one.  This allows topics and activities to be chunked.  Chunking, breaking information into bite-sized pieces, allows students to retain more of what you are teaching.
  • Incorporate short group activities to reinforce content: Activities makes the student participate in the learning process.  It shifts the the student to be active, instead of a passive listener.  Have activities where students summarize key points of readings, key topics, or projects.  They should present their findings to the rest of the class.
  • Reserve the last 20 minutes of class for review and questions:  Additional review time helps solidify the main points of the class.  Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself.  It may be old news to you, but its new to your students.


For more information on attention spans, please see the following sites:

Social Media and the Love of Science

How Social Media is Ruining Our Minds


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