Should lecturers be trained to deal with shortening attention spans?

Would my life be easier if I had received explicit guidance in how to deliver content in TikTok-length pieces? asks Katie Davis

Katie Davis's avatar
University of Washington
26 May 2021
Too many devices. Should we be training lecturers to deal with shortened attention spans?
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There’s a non-trivial element of entertainment involved in the act − or art − of teaching. If you think back to your favourite teachers over the years, whether from school or university, I would wager that they found a way to convey their own interest and investment in their subject matter in a way that captured and held your attention.

My high school history teacher described William the Conqueror’s invasion of England and Richard III’s fall at the Battle of Bosworth Field with such excitement that it felt like he had witnessed these events first-hand. My statistics professor in graduate school used to spontaneously jump on to classroom desks and gesticulate wildly to convey to us the magic of logistic regression. In contrast, my most forgettable teachers were those who seemed like they were simply going through the motions and didn’t really care about what they were saying or whether we were learning.

When I began my own teaching career 20 years ago in a Year 2 classroom, I fully bought into the notion that a teacher must work hard to engage her students and get them as excited to learn as she is to teach the topic at hand. I still believe this. I also believe that students bear the responsibility of being fully present with me on the journey I have crafted so carefully and deliberately for them.

But over the past decade or so, I’ve felt this balance of effort and engagement shift such that more and more of the burden falls on me to capture and hold my students’ attention − an attention span that feels like it’s becoming ever shorter.

Even when I require devices to be put away, there’s always a nagging feeling that I’m competing with the siren calls of phone notifications (most are mundane, but each one holds the promise of importance) and constantly refreshing webpages on the 15-20 (or more) browser tabs open on any one student’s laptop. The stony faces I see in front of me in the lecture hall − or, for the past year, the even stonier black boxes that cover my Zoom screen − belie the near-constant cycling through digital content that I know (many? most? all?) of my students are engaged in while I’m speaking.

As a researcher who studies young people’s digital media use, I understand that existing research cannot say definitively that today’s students have shorter attention spans than students of 20 or 30 years earlier. And yet, as a teacher of these same young people, it certainly feels that way as each year I find myself searching for ever more entertaining YouTube videos and pithy, relevant-to-the-times examples to illuminate complex concepts.

Would my life be easier if I had been given explicit training in how to deliver content in TikTok-length pieces? Perhaps. And, although my students might appreciate and be engaged by this style of teaching, I don’t think carving a lecture period into ever-smaller fragments ultimately supports their learning. Or rather, it doesn’t support all forms of learning that are worth engaging in. 

There’s real value in being able to follow a linear, in-depth argument from beginning to end, and I believe we should present students with opportunities to develop this skill. It may be harder and feel less natural, it may take more work − especially in contrast to the rapid-fire ease with which students engage with content on platforms such as TikTok, Twitter and YouTube − but it’s worth it.

When you join someone as they build a layered argument over the course of 30, 60 or even 90 minutes, you’re developing the cognitive skills needed to grapple with complex problems that take more than five minutes to solve. In many ways, this form of learning is not about − or not just about − the topic at hand, whether British history or logistic regression. The very act of paying attention and engaging with an extended argument is developing a transferable skill that’s still important − indeed, vital − to our society.

And there’s an ironic tension present in that society: as we become habituated to engaging with information, ideas and even each other in ever-shorter slices, the problems facing us are increasingly complex and demand our sustained attention to address effectively.

Developing and distributing vaccines to end a global pandemic, combatting misinformation and disinformation, stopping and reversing the effects of climate change − these existential problems that face our society, our democracy and our planet require deep expertise and complex coordination to solve. We would be doing our students and our society a disservice if we catered completely to (what feels like) shrinking attention spans in the classroom.   

With that said, there’s plenty of room for YouTube videos, group discussions and live polling in today’s university classroom. These activities develop their own skills that have value in our multilayered society, with its many forms of communication and modes of engagement. Instead of narrowing our teaching to accommodate shorter attention spans, we should be expanding our pedagogical repertoire to develop in students the full range of skills they’ll need to engage effectively with the many dimensions of society, from 100-character tweets to 700-page works of historical non-fiction.

Katie Davis is an associate professor and PhD programme chair at the University of Washington’s Information School.

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