In a classroom scenario, students are physically present in their classes, but not paying attention to all the lessons being taught. This lack of attention is evident in the results of the review assignments, quizzes, or exams. This leads to a sense of failure for the instructors.
The same is true for e-learning; when learners do not pay attention, it reflects on the assessments and overall lack of improvement in the performance of the learner. An article ‘Why can’t students just pay attention’, throws light on the importance of increasing the attention span of the learners. Though the solutions are aligned more towards traditional learning, they can all be suitably tweaked for e-learning and make the technology-aided medium more effective.
How important is ‘attention’: There is a lot of modern research on attention in the cognitive psychology literature. To find the details on the ways to enhance attention, it is important to understand the meaning of the word ‘attention’. Attention, as defined in the cognitive literature, refers to the idea that students have a finite amount of cognitive resource available at any given moment to devote to a particular stimuli from their sensory environment. To that end, the attention of the students is constantly shuttling between what they are experiencing within and without. However, when the class is interesting and there is activity, the students tend to pay more attention. Students can focus on these activities and this helps them to remember the information for later use or application. However, when class is not engaging, the students will find other things to divert their attention to.
Sometimes, with the advent of the available technologies, students often tend to multi-task while in class. Some may try to engage in activities on their gadgets such as laptop, iPad, or phone, and activities such as checking messages, e-emails, or other alerts and websites. These may be a part of their work or study plan which leads them to believe that the activity is not distracting them. For instance, reading a message on the availability of seats in an upcoming workshop comes right under the array of ‘necessary’ tasks for the student. But when this task is done within the classroom, it is a distraction and the students withdraw themselves from immersing in the learning content, resulting in poorer performance.
In self-paced e-learning, the fear of such distraction is greater, as the learner alone is responsible to take up learning. Distractions, even if work-related, diminish the effect of learning by considerable measures and that is something all the e-learning developers worry about.
Is there a solution? Although some learning experts believe that the burden of attention rests on the student, there are things we can do to keep them actively involved in their learning. For students to pay attention in a class, their attention needs to be focused on the material at hand. This means that we need to engage the students in ways that make it difficult for them to pay attention to anything else.
There are several strategies for engaging students in the classroom, and many of them are mentioned under the umbrella of ‘effective teaching strategies’ and ‘learner-centred’ approaches. The reality is that any strategy that utilizes the following measures, will engage students and make them devote their attention to the learning material alone:
• Ask questions and invite responses: Questions can be posed to assess the learners, and provide a suitable break from learning. They provide a much-needed interval and invite the learners to think and implement their thoughts into practise. Different kinds of questions can be asked to foster their attention including multiple-choice questions, true or false, or fill in the blanks — all requiring quick thinking and feedback; all of this can be provided for within the e-course. This shortens the waiting time as it is in the phase that the learner often get distracted. If the time when they provide the answers, and get the feedback whether their answers were right or wrong, is very less, the learners are bound to get charged up and look forward to more.
All the questions need not be straightforward — bringing in variety in questions can also bring variety to the content — as it fosters the attention of the learner. Stories and case studies are the simplest ways to build up a real-life scenario that kindles the imagination of the learner and forces them to think on practical lines. There are various ways that a story can be utilized to present questions. A story can be told using different mediums — text, graphics, or audio-visuals — in a combination of any, or all of the above. For an immersive experience, the learner can be made a part of the story and given the authority to take decisions. The steps to reach the decision could be given as options so that the learner can evaluate. As an alternative, an open text field can be provided, where the learners can write their responses. Descriptive feedback supports this type of an interaction, where instead of a simple ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, the feedback includes how the response was correct, or why it was not.
‘Fix-it’ stories can be shared to encourage quick and critical thinking among the learners. A scenario can be described, where the learner needs to make quick decisions and think on his toes, which is the thing often required out of them in the real world.
Another type of stories where the story is deliberately left incomplete, can also provide ‘food for thought’. The premise of the story can be given and the learner can take it forward through single or multiple branching. This type of questions builds the decision-making capabilities of the learners as the story reaches multiple conclusions due to their choice of actions.
• Invite questions to foster peer discussions: Do not do all the asking, and give the learners a chance to ask questions as well. To ensure that the learners are interested and intrigued by the topic, they can be invited to ask a set number of questions on the topic and post it on a social forum. With the help of an online instructor, a healthy discussion can be lead on these questions, where the learners can provide answers to the questions that their peers have posed. This supplements the self-paced delivery of learning, and provides a way for the learner to connect beyond the learning content.
• Invite student comment, feedback, and response on learning content: E-courses can include questionnaires to collect feedback from the learners. Comment section can be included, this would provide the learners a way to have their say on the kind of learning material they want to see on a frequent basis. This can be a very effective way to create learning content, which is aligned more to the needs of the learners and is focused more on the student perspectives.
As basic as these seem, these strategies do promote student engagement to a greater level. And with their success it is evident that if we want to create a climate of learning, curiosity, inquiry and engagement, we need to work with our students by taking them along at every step of the way.