• Question: I am interested in how to improve a students length of concentration and resilience to keep on a topic for longer. Any ideas?

    Asked by brouatj17 to Mike, Matt, Geneviève, Gaia, Emma on 24 Jan 2018.
    • Photo: Emma Blakey

      Emma Blakey answered on 24 Jan 2018:

      Hi, this is a really good question. Research on this in the classroom seems scarce but I hope some of these ideas based around what we know about attention/learning might help:

      – Remove potential distractions not related to the activity at hand.
      – Get students actively involved by having them read aloud, or asking them questions.
      – Students might also concentrate more when the learning activity is relevant to them. Therefore, having learning activity grounded in real life scenarios could help keep them motivated and consequently help their concentration.
      – Target students ‘zone of proximal development’. If the activity is too easy, students could get bored and lose concentration. If it’s too hard, they may give up. Activities that are challenging but still within the students’ ability may help keep them focused.

      These two articles have some good tips (though they are focused on higher education, some of the ideas apply to all aspects of education):

    • Photo: Geneviève Allaire-Duquette

      Geneviève Allaire-Duquette answered on 24 Jan 2018:


      This is indeed a very interesting question and probably a widespread concern amongst educators from all background.

      I think Emma shared some great tips and valuable insights. In addition to removing potential distractors, proposing tasks that trigger students’ interest and reasonably challenging students’ abilities, I think it is important to take into consideration the spacing effect. One of the most reliable finding in education is that learning is greater when studying is spread out over time, as opposed to studying the same content in a single session. Therefore, improving student’s length of concentration might, at least partly, require to allow them to space or distribute learning sessions over the day, over the week, and so on.

      – Spacing effect is observed in various educational settings, groups and materials.
      – When lessons are spaced, students learn more and forget less.
      – Spaced practice works regardless of who controls the schedule.
      – Spacing lessons seem to contribute to maintain activity in brain regions associated with successful encoding, working memory, etc.

      An interesting instructional implication is suggested by Gerbier & Toppino (2015), « Instructors frequently summarize at the end of a class session the material that was covered that day. That is a good practice. However, it might be beneficial to summarize the previous day׳s lessons at the beginning of the next class, repeating information after a long enough spacing interval that the information has undergone a significant amount of consolidation. »

      However, it is still unclear what is the optimal gap. Increasing the gap between study sessions can enhance retention, yet little is known about how distributed practice effect unfolds over nontrivial periods (Cepeda et al., 2009). Some algorithms are being developed experimentally and are worth a look (Lindsey et al., 2014).

      Bell, M. C., Kawadri, N., Simone, P. M., & Wiseheart, M. (2014). Long-term memory, sleep, and the spacing effect. Memory, 22(3), 276–283. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2013.778294

      Callan, D. E., & Schweighofer, N. (2010). Neural correlates of the spacing effect in explicit verbal semantic encoding support the deficient-processing theory. Human Brain Mapping, 31(4), 645–659. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.20894

      Cepeda, N. J., Vul, E., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J. T., & Pashler, H. (2008). Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychological science, 19(11), 1095-1102.

      Cepeda, N. J., Coburn, N., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J. T., Mozer, M. C., & Pashler, H. (2009). Optimizing distributed practice: Theoretical analysis and practical implications. Experimental psychology, 56(4), 236-246.

      Gerbier, E., & Toppino, T. C. (2015). The effect of distributed practice: Neuroscience, cognition, and education. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 4(3), 49-59.

      Lindsey, R. V., Shroyer, J. D., Pashler, H., & Mozer, M. C. (2014). Improving students’ long-term knowledge retention through personalized review. Psychological science, 25(3), 639-647.

      Sobel, H. S., Cepeda, N. J., & Kapler, I. V. (2011). Spacing effects in real‐world classroom vocabulary learning. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(5), 763-767.

    • Photo: Mike Hobbiss

      Mike Hobbiss answered on 26 Jan 2018:

      Hi Janet,

      One final addition to the very thorough suggestions above would be to try to think about the level of ‘cognitive load’ in the tasks. Cognitive load theory is a way of thinking about where students’ effort should be directed so that it is most beneficial. If students are having to allocate mental effort to tasks that are not essential to the task itself (such as remembering a list of instructions rather than simply concentrating on the problem), then they will have less capacity available for solving the problem at hand successfully. A quick intro to the theory is here, as well as links to further reading: https://hobbolog.wordpress.com/2016/06/09/cognitive-load-theory-the-right-kind-of-load/