Can I just get your attention…

The BBC News reports on research which states

University students have average attention spans of just 10 minutes


They will only pay attention to something for just ten minutes?


Sorry, what a load of cobblers.

The average length of time a student could concentrate for in lectures was 10 minutes, according to the survey carried last month. And a third blamed lack of sleep and being overworked for this.

No students don’t have ten minute attention spans, it’s just that lectures only hold their attention for ten minutes. That is a very different thing.

If students can spend four hours playing World of Warcraft, what does that say about attention spans?

If students can watch an entire episode of Heroes or sit through the 162 minutes of Avatar, what does that say about attention spans?

Yes there are bound to be students out there that only have ten minute attention spans, however the problem that the research has identified is that the traditional university lecture can only hold the attention span of students for just ten minutes.

The problem with this research and the “findings” is that rather than face the actual problem of boring or unengaging lectures, we try and solve the problem of inattentive students or just start doing ten minute lectures and complain about “dumbing down”.

To be honest I don’t think this is anything new and not exclusive to university students.

At the recent Handheld Learning Conference last year in October I remember Tweeting how with one of the keynote speakers I had stopped listening within ten minutes. Now I think I do have quite a long attention span, but in this instance I didn’t. It’s more often not the person who has the short attention span, but how the content grabs the attention of the person listening. With other keynotes at the conference I was there listening all the way through.

Maybe universities need to stop thinking about student attention spans and start thinking about how they can engage their students to ensure that they engage with the lecture or sessions for how long it takes. Making it engaging (though this doesn’t always mean interactive) and interesting so that it holds the attention of learners for more than ten minutes.

Still with me… or did I lose your attention!

8 thoughts on “Can I just get your attention…”

  1. Some lecturers have kept me and my friends engaged for the hour *and* been interesting enough to keep us talking about what we’d heard long after the lecture had finished.

    Other lecturers would be lucky to last five minutes, let alone ten.

    Attention span depends on the situation. For students who truly want to learn, there’s clearly something wrong when they switch off, no matter how hard they try to pay attention.

    Lucky I’ve got a pretty good attention spa…sp…ooh, cookies…

  2. Your post got and held my attention (although it did take less than 10 mins to read).

    While I think in any presentation it’s likely that peoples’ attention will wax and wane, motivated learners will certainly stay the course for longer than this research suggests.

    Not sure a 10min lecture would be practical even if it was desirable, but in longer presentations it’s probably a good idea to build in opportunities for people to tune back in if they have tuned out.

    Do you think a persons attention is reduced for online/remote presentations or do the same ‘rules of engagement’ apply?

  3. Hear hear…

    A little bird told me that when planning any kind of session – whether billed as a workshop, a seminar or a lecture – even a keynote – you need to have thought, for every slide, every task, every 30-second chunk, not only what YOU’RE doing but also – what are THEY doing? What are they getting from this?

  4. Agreed. I recall having lectures that held my attention for 2 hours easily and others which I didn’t bother attending because they were so bad (my time being better spent learning the subect myself or just accepting a lower grade on that subject and putting the time gained into better results in the others)

    I’m a firm believer as a result that students make their own intelligent choices about which lectures to attend, and that colours my opinions when certain lecturers complain about poor attendance in their lecturers. (and often use that as a mistaken argument for not putting lecture matterials online in advance or otherwise of lecturers)

    A good/effective lecture needs to be a performance. The best lecturers are not necessarily those who know most about a subject but those who can make a subject enthralling.

    I’ve often thought that this should be reflected in the questions in the national student survey more explicitly and in a way that can be used by institutions to reward the best and develop those who disappoint.

    It’s also facinating to hear students talking about the contrasts between the effectiveness of the performances of different lectures when in a lift with them or sat in the refectory when they don’t recognize that you’re “staff” 🙂

    what is disappointing too is how some staff think that throwing technology at their lecturers will be enough to make their lecturers engaging for students. A bad lecture remains a bad lecture no matter how much tech you throw at it.

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