6 ways to help learners recalibrate attention in a lecture

Students sitting in a lecture have enormous amounts of extraneous load to deal with. The sheer size of the room means that the distance between the lecturer and themselves can be large, and a lot of stimuli is on offer in the space.

Visually, the student is presented with a plethora of differences amongst individuals, with the eye being caught by anyone who catches them by surprise. Surprise comes from seeing something that is unexpected: perhaps it’s the way someone is dressed, perhaps it’s a woman or a man or a they who is attractive, perhaps it’s a sudden movement of someone three rows in front. Likely too is the notification that pops up on the laptop, and the resulting click to the website. All of these result in distraction from what is being presented.

Aurally, the student sitting behind typing loudly on the laptop, the other person coughing, the seat two rows in front creaking at every sign of movement, the talking of two students asking each other a question within earshot and the vibration of someone’s phone on their metal half-desk all distract from what is being presented.

Olfactorily, a range of perfume, deodorants and colognes infiltrate the nose, and when combined with a smell, randomly occurring, of any sort, again, takes the attention by surprise, the consequence being a distraction from what is being presented.

Kinaesthetically, the comfort of the seat determined by the pressure of bones against it versus the physical condition of the sitter, the sudden itch that arises, the need to cough but trying to hold it in, acutely aware of most believing it will be deemed as Covid, the battling against the nearing full bladder, and the random vibration of the owner’s phone all potentiating distraction from what is being presented.

It’s jungle out there

The more things distracting the learner the more the working memory, which has a limited capacity (Cowan 2005), will become overloaded. The consequence is the compromised learning of the intended content. The need to design presentations that signal attention is clear, but I wonder too if lecturers would benefit from checking in frequently with students to help them recalibrate their attention.

How to recalibrate attention

  1. Design slides that have obvious visual cues.  

2. Discuss the obvious extraneous load in the theatre and ask students to stop typing, moving etc while you present the next important idea. Then let students know when they can resume typing to take notes, and give them a moment to do so.

3. Pause your voice and your movement before introducing an important idea. The break in rhythm will surprise students and grab their attention. To prove this is a thing, consider when the TV is on in the background and it goes silent – I bet you look up.

4. Consider the power of tone and intonation, and modulate your voice at certain sections of the presentation. Don’t be afraid to raise your voice, and don’t be afraid to lower it too.

5. Deliberately make a mistake in a couple of the slides. Ask if people noticed it, and then explain why you did it.

6. Tell stories. EVERYONE loves story, so utilise this natural phenomenon. The most successful are anecdotes related to the content that position the material in the wider world, but personal stories are also very powerful as they let students enter your world and make a connection with you.  


Cowan, N. (2005). Working memory capacity. New York: Psychology Press.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

Cover image: Shutterstock, Stock Vector ID: 2173438117

One comment

  1. Thank you for an interesting and topical read in that as we are now trying to readjust to face-to-face teaching and learning, tips like these can be helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

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