How to Get (and Keep) Their Attention

Recently I prepared a poster on the Top Ten ways to gain students’ attention.  It was displayed at the UBC Okanagan Centre for Teaching and Learning’s Annual Conference Engaging Every Learner a few years ago.  As part of my project, I asked viewers of the poster to share their favourite ways to gain attention in class.  So, here is the collected list, with some additional ideas from one of the sessions I attended on Interactive Techniques with Richard Plunkett, including a list of interactive techniques prepared by Kevin Yee.

1. Involve Everyone

It can be a challenge to design activities in which everyone feels engaged, but Liberating Structures has a number of great suggestions for format, invitations, and content that can ensure that everyone has a stake in the proceedings.  Contributed: give the whole class a task that can only be accomplished by everyone fulfilling their assigned role. Another one: use ‘lecture reaction’ where students take on the roles of ‘questioners’, ‘example givers’, ‘divergent thinkers’ or ‘agreers’ and discuss in small groups accordingly. I also assign the role of ‘researchers’ who can google or search for interesting information and share it with the class.

2. Explain Yourself

Stating your purpose clearly, for the course, and for the learner, is an important first step in helping to establish a connection.

3. Make it Worth it

Accountability is important to helping learners engage.  Using quizzes or surveys to gauge the level of knowledge without giving the impression of ‘judgement’ means keeping these low-stakes and fun.  IFAT (Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique) scratch cards encourage teams to arrive at consensus before answering.

4. Apply Knowledge

Asking learners to think about a situation, case, or example immediately after explaining a concept can help concretize the material and aids retention.  Contributed variation: invite learners to attend a professional meeting or to interview a practitioner in the field of study. Use ‘finger signals’ instead of clickers for multiple choice or true or false questions (students hold up fingers against their chest so others can’t see, to indicate the correct choice).

5. Be Organized

It sounds trite, but having an agenda for the class and carefully signposting each activity shows respect for learners’ time. Include an opening, buildup and closing at the very least.  Contributed variation:  use a one-minute paper to have learners identify the ‘Muddiest Point’ and address next class.

6. Use Metaphors

Solving a tough problem can be like unravelling a ball of string.  Metaphors help learners to connect the familiar with the unfamiliar.  Contributed variation:  use a ‘Snowball’ technique with this one.

7. Use Mystery

Don’t give away the ‘answers’ prematurely!   Build up to the big reveal with hints and clues. Variation: Picture prompts, in which an image is presented without explanation, asks students to identify/explain, discuss and describe any structures or processes shown (can be written or discussion format).

8. Be Unexpected

Use incongruity, contrasts and comparisons to spur thinking.  It doesn’t have to be flashy or shocking, just curious or odd. Contributed variation: use movement, have students move to different areas of the classroom for group work, writing comments on sticky notes, posting under categories, etc.

9. Use Visuals

A picture speaks volumes.  Well, you knew that…but visual culture in the age of Instagram is even more vital. Contributed variation:  give learners objects to ‘play with’ during long lectures (colouring, playdough).  Use demonstrations.

10. Vary Your Voice

For most people, this requires increasing your volume and variability in a conscious way. It may seem uncomfortable at first, but listeners will thank you. Contributed variation:  be enthusiastic and show your passion!  Capture the emotional content in your subject to create a hook.