Change lecture style for shorter attention spans
INTO THE FIRE
Published: Monday, October 31, 2011
Updated: Monday, October 31, 2011 23:10
I've realized it may be impossible for me to listen to a 50-minute lecture without checking my email, doodling in the corners of my notebook or scanning the pages of the Huffington Post. Sitting still in a swivel chair as my professor discusses Roman art in a dark, auditorium-style classroom is simply too much to ask. My attention span is just too short.
I often wonder why I'm so unfocused. Why can't I start something and finish it in the same sitting? Why is it is so difficult to read a 14-page excerpt from a book without taking a Facebook break or switching to other work? Indeed, I've already checked my email four times in the time I began writing this; and I haven't yet reached the thesis of my argument.
Sadly, I'm a college student, and this is an issue that even much younger children have to overcome.
Certainly part of the answer is the immediacy and interactivity of technology. The initial high of receiving an email or Facebook notification defeats the drudgery and monotony of schoolwork. John Milton can't compete with Netflix, and the Parthenon doesn't come close to playing Angry Birds. If we expect to be entertained all the time, we will lose our ability to concentrate on one task at a time.
Susan Greenfield, an Oxford University neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, released a report in 2009 claiming that constant exposure to social networking sites could actually rewire the brain and, in effect, shorten a person's attention span. As Greenfield theorizes, it's possible that the immediate gratification and wonderment of being always connected is slowly eroding our concentration capacities.
However, from time to time, classwork does spark my interest and keep my attention. Once in a while, I find myself reading ahead of the assignment because I want to. I have the potential to focus but have lapses in attention. Perhaps another reason we're so unfocused is because that's how our minds are supposed to be: undisciplined and disorderly. Technology only enhances the chaos.
"One of the reasons it's so difficult to stay focused is that humans are naturally prone to interruption," says Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. According to Jackson, we're programmed to react to new information as a survival method; we see a threat and respond to it. This survival method in today's age has become the unstoppable urge to respond to a buzzing text message. By attempting to react to this new information, we find that we're unable to fully concentrate on one task without doing multiple things at once.
In 2009, Stanford University organized a study looking at the different attention spans of 19 heavy-duty multitaskers versus 22 individuals who rarely concentrated on more than two or three tasks. The test called for the students to determine if the positioning of a red rectangle changed without getting distracted by superfluous blue rectangles. The study found the single-taskers performed significantly better because they avoided distractions. While it would seem the multitaskers would have been able to manage the increased stimuli, their approach was different from the single-taskers. Though most of us are able to do homework while we listen to music and instant message our friends, we may not realize we're significantly less attentive to our work. But is this a result of the constant interactions we now have with technology, or because fundamentally most individuals can't adequately perform multiple tasks given their diminished concentration?
It seems the addition of technology to our lives has forced us to multitask. We are in essence constantly over-stimulated and are therefore unable to concentrate on one task at a time without being distracted by our phones, computers or iPods. And even if we're naturally programmed to have lapses in attention, how can we fix this problem?
The solution can potentially be found in the classroom. Research shows that the brain can better process information in smaller 15-to-20 minute intervals of activity. While a 50-minute lecture is by no means a feat to sit through, staying engaged continuously for that amount of time can be challenging. In a study conducted last year by the Journal of Chemical Education, the researchers tested how students' attention spans responded to various different methods of teaching. The study indicated professors can engage students with demonstrations and clickers, or devices that have students answer questions interactively.
We can also take it upon ourselves to lengthen our attention spans. A study released by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008 found that meditation can help. Volunteers spent three months learning and training in Vipassana meditation, an ancient Indian routine that involves self-observation. When volunteers were faced with distractions after the experiment, they were better able to complete full tasks.
Technology does play a part in the erosion of an individual's attention span; however, at some point, we're all going to stop listening during that lecture. Along with the convenience of text messaging comes the distinctly inconvenient problem of being unable to concentrate on anything that doesn't light up or buzz.
These distractions, however, have become integral parts of our lives. While we can manage to stay awake during class, professors must recognize that it is necessary to make their lesson plans more engaging and interactive to hold our attentions.