Divided Attention

9780674368248I’m reading Minds online: teaching effectively with technology by Michelle Miller, recommended by several colleagues and reviewed here by Harvard Press.

I’ve read as far as the chapter on Attention – the capacity to pick out and maintain task-relevant information while holding irrelevant information at bay. We know human perception and attention is highly intertwined with visual processing. Looking and seeing are not the same! Our attention capacity is limited, probably more than we recognize. We have surprisingly little intuitive awareness of when our limitations are exceeded, which is why we still talk on the phone and drive.

We remember very little in the absence of focused attention. Since focused attention directs what is to be kept in our working memory, it heavily influences what we remember, and without it, we remember precious little.  We do process material at some level even when ignoring it but little or none of it makes it to memory.

This YouTube video is an example of how she demonstrates change blindness and inattentional blindness to show students how much attention matters.

Michelle Miller gives several strategies that may help online learners.  I’ve summarized several of them here:

  1. Keep them engaged by asking questions. Ask students to respond as often as possible to the material they’re reading/viewing to keep attention. Intersperse questions within reading material that require an answer, opinion, or example. Do the same with narrated slides or a video lecture.
  2. Practice for Automaticity. Provide unlimited practice that gives automatic feedback for the kind of lower level problems experts solve quickly. Both time and accuracy count with grade incentives.
  3. Lessen Cognitive Load. Put instructions in the same place as the activity. Don’t make them switch back and forth between instructions, illustrations, and text. Use diagrams with labels in place. Teach software skills before using it to do an assignment. For example, have students practice using a wiki before a major assignment using this shared space is due.
  4. Discourage divided attention. Remind students that divided attention by dysfunctional multitasking costs them time and deep learning. Let them know that the distractions of a quick email or message chat changes their focus from the learning activity.
  5. A short walk in nature restores the ability to focus nature walk'sattentions. Even pictures of nature can sometimes improve attention…

In an online environment, it’s easy for students to be distracted so help them focus by using some of these strategies.

The following is an interview with the author, from Teaching in Higher Ed

2 thoughts on “Divided Attention

  1. Mike Forder

    Your summarized points are…on point. If we think of an online learning experience as a conversation it is should be open and balanced. If only one side is doing the talking the other side is going to quickly become disengaged. We’re all selfish in that respect. Why deny it when you can build the behavior into online instruction and increase engagement?

    1. Britt Watwood

      Neat point, Mike. If online learning is viewed more as discourse and less as content delivery (whatever that means), then that balance would seem to happen more naturally.

      Nice review, Joyce. Michelle’s book is one of the better I have read this year. Just starting Made to Stick.


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