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How to get your learners’ attention

North Cliff High School pupils in a science class. photo: oupa nkosi

Three exciting scientific ways to get learners back into learning mode after a long holiday break

Sarah Wild

After more than a month of holiday, most learners have lost the knack of sitting still for long stretches of time, let alone absorbing new knowledge. Ensuring that learners pay attention during class can be a daunting task. Here are some tricks — backed up by science — to get your students focused on learning.

  1. Let there be light

“Our alertness is profoundly affected by light,” says Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford. Many classrooms and offices are too dark, so while learners (and teachers) should be getting a lot of light to stay alert and awake, they’re stuck in dimly lit rooms. For full alertness, people need about 800 LUX, says Foster. LUX is the measure of luminescence. From about one metre away from a candle, a person is exposed to one LUX. Outside in full sun, the LUX is about 100 000. The average office or classroom is about 400 LUX, as computer screens need to be operated in a fairly dim environment. Ventilation is also crucial. Ensure that your classroom is bright enough and has sufficient fresh air, or try alternating with outside lessons.

  1. Get active

Whether it is during breaks or during class, get your learners active. US researchers have demonstrated that just 20 minutes of walking improved learners’ ability to concentrate, switch between tasks, and ignore distractions. “Following … walking, children are better able to allocate attentional resources,” said Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois. “When the environment is more noisy — visual noise in this case — kids are better able to gate out that noise and selectively attend to the correct stimulus and act upon it.”

Interestingly, he found that active learners achieved better test results. “The effect was largest in reading comprehension,” Hillman said. “The increase in reading comprehension following exercise equated to approximately a full grade level.”

But most schools don’t have a treadmill at their disposal, as Hillman did. Study co-author Darla Castelli said that school-level interventions could involve scheduling outdoor recess as a part of each school day; offering formal physical education for 150 minutes per week at elementary level, and 225 minutes at secondary level; and encouraging classroom teachers to integrate physical activity into their teaching activities.

  1. A change is as good as a holiday

Where you allocate learners to sit in the classroom can influence whether they’re likely to concentrate or not. This is what researchers found when they studied a class of second graders, with their desks in different configurations: horse shoes, rows and clusters. The most common “off-task” behaviours were “inappropriate talking, students out of their seats without permission, students not following directions, and students not starting independent work promptly”, wrote the researchers. They measured the frequency of behaviours and found that the best desk arrangement to keep learners focused on the job at hand was rows.

Learners in clusters, on the other hand, are more likely to lose focus, although this is a good arrangement for collaboration and group activities. “Finding the appropriate seating arrangement can be very difficult to determine, mainly because one seating arrangement cannot be used to meet the academic and social needs of all learners,” wrote the researchers.

They recommend that teachers choose the seating arrangement that best suits them and their learners. Importantly, this study observed grade two learners, not grade 11s, so different age groups may respond differently to different configurations.

“It is also recommended that the teacher does not keep the same seating arrangement for the entire duration of the school year, and that the teacher carefully place learners with special needs or behaviours in close proximity to the teacher, in order to ensure delivery of instruction and to reduce behavioural issues,” concluded the researchers.

 

1 Comment

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