What Are Strategies for Keeping Students’ Attention?

2011Symposium_1_2I think that the single most difficult obstacle to overcome when teaching is keeping students attention focused on what I have planned for them to be doing. This is especially true if the activity requires them to problem solve or practice something over a time span of five minutes or more. Because practice, refinement, and self-evaluation are essential to developing musicianship, ways must be found to hold or successfully redirect students’ attention; effort and achievement depend on being attentive over a period of time. Today, I will discuss some strategies I have found helpful. I hope that today’s post will initiate a discussion through your comments. I encourage you to share other strategies you have successfully used to keep or redirect students’ attention to your learning activity.

The first strategy is to control the pacing. I cannot afford to let the lesson get bogged down because of a slow pace. If I do, students will quickly loose interest and become disengaged. To keep the pace up, or give the illusion of a fast pace, I like to divide my lessons into sections, and to announce transitions from one section to the next. Knowing that we are moving to the next section of the lesson gives everyone the sense that we are accomplishing something and moving forward. The sense of movement is critical. After introducing the lesson and stating the day’s objective, I will say something like, “first, we will review what we learned last time.” I will use a combination of class unison response and questioning individual students for the review, and call on students I want to check on, not necessarily those who raise their hands. If a student doesn’t know the answer, I will find the student help from another student. No one knows when they will be called on, so all are ready with an answer. Going from one student to the next to complete an answer makes it seem like the class is moving quickly.

When I am satisfied that the review has succeeded, I will say something like, “now we will move on to the classroommain purpose for today’s lesson.” This gives students confidence that they are now prepared, and because they have confidence, they can look forward to what is coming next; when students are looking forward to what is coming next, I have their attention. After brief directions, I release students to group work, or lead the class in class work. I like having students work in groups of two or three, because it gives me a better opportunity to assess their work, and it allows students to direct their own learning by employing their best learning style. I always put a time limit on group work, and remind them of what they have left to do and how much time they have to do it in. This helps focus their attention on the right things, and as time nearly runs out, gives the impression that the pace is moving quickly. Students love to help each other, and many who would struggle in a whole-class activity do much better in small groups, with the help of their peers. For whole-class activities such as group singing, I walk around the room while the children are singing. They know that no matter when I walk up next to them, I should hear what I have asked them to sing.

The eyes are the most important part of attention. A person’s attention will almost always follow his or her eyes. If they are looking at me when I’m speaking, they will be paying attention to what I’m saying. If they are looking at a classmate, or at a paper, their attention will be on that other person, or that paper, not me. I constantly insist that everyone look at the person or thing to which I want them to give their attention, and I will stop teaching in order to get this. There is little point in teaching if the students aren’t learning, and they won’t be learning if their attention is elsewhere.

Finally, I do not permit a handful of students to answer all the questions and solve all the problems. If I did, the rest of the class would develop the habit of being inattentive. Why should they pay attention if they can get all the answers by doing nothing but let others do all the work? I insist on everyone answering questions and giving me whatever response I have asked for. This also shows that I care about all students learning, not just the ones who are the quickest to come up with the answers. Students who feel valued are more likely to be motivated to participate, and will as a result learn more and succeed often. After providing classes worth paying attention to, keeping all of my students’ attention is perhaps the most important thing I do.

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