Want to tear students from their phones? Learn their names

Holding students’ attention in a world of digital distractions is tough, but James Lang explains why remembering and using their names can make the task less herculean

James M. Lang's avatar
Assumption University
16 Sep 2021
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Students on phones

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The challenge of cultivating student attention has never been more intense than it will be in the coming academic year. Faculty have been battling the distracting power of student devices in the classroom for a decade or two, and during the pandemic the integration of screens into education has intensified. Continuous engagement with our devices over the past 18 months will likely make it more challenging for students to pull their eyes away from their screens and focus on in-person classroom activities.

However, we set ourselves on a quixotic quest if we try to remove all distractions from our courses. Distractions are everywhere in our lives; even without our devices, we can be troubled by our worries and anxieties. Educators have expressed concern about the easily distracted human brain as far back as ancient Greece, when Aristotle described how music lovers had trouble paying attention to arguments when they heard a flute playing nearby.

Paying attention to an argument is hard intellectual work, as is learning. In the face of hard work – such as following an argument or engaging in a discussion – our distractions become especially appealing. What this means for educators is that we have to stop treating attention in the classroom as the norm and distractions as deviations from the norm. Attention is an achievement, one that requires effort on the part of the learner and support from the teacher and the classroom environment.

A fundamental part of our work as educators thus must be the creation of classroom environments that foster and support attention. Cultivating the attention of students can seem like a herculean task, but our work can start with a simple and highly effective practice: mastering and using student names.

From our earliest months of life, our names grab our attention. One research team measured brain waves in infants while they were exposed to variations of word strings, including their names. The infants showed increased brain activity at the sound of their name, but what was even more striking was what happened after the infants heard their name. Following either their name or random sound patterns, the infants were exposed to different objects. Their brains showed more activity as they studied these new objects after they had heard their names. Hearing their names perked up their attention and prepared them to learn.

Names grab the attention of adults as well. Our names solicit our attention no matter how many distractions are whirring around us, a phenomenon that has been dubbed the “cocktail party effect”. Picture yourself at a cocktail party, with all its ambient noise, participating in a conversation. Even though your attention might be fully focused on that conversation, if someone within earshot speaks your name, you will tune your attention to that direction.

To cultivate the attention of our students, then, we can start by learning and using student names. I have always made it a priority in my teaching to memorise students’ names. But a colleague who observed me teach pointed out that while I clearly knew everyone’s name (since I handed back quizzes without asking for names), I didn’t use them in class. When I called on students to speak, I would gesture towards them and say: “Go ahead.”

These days, I use student names in class as frequently as possible. In addition to calling on students by name, I pause often in my teaching and check in with individual students by name, asking if they have questions or would like to add anything to our discussion. Students can (and often do) pass on the opportunity to contribute in response to these informal invitations – but even when they remain silent, they have received an attentional boost from hearing their name in the classroom.

You might argue that your classes are too large to memorise names, in which case you can follow the lead of instructors in one study who had their students put name placards on their desks so they could call on them by name. At the end of the semester, the instructors reviewed pictures of the students and were asked how many names they could remember: about 50 per cent. But when the students were surveyed, about 80 per cent of them thought the instructors knew their names. More than 85 per cent of the students also reported that it mattered that the instructor knew their names, even in a large class.

This simple practice, which supports student attention, aligns perfectly with an even more important pedagogical goal: valuing every student in the room. Speaking the names of students will perk up their attention in the ways that researchers have demonstrated. But it also communicates that we are teaching individual human beings, and each individual forms an essential part of the classroom community. We want students to feel recognised as people – with their distinctive histories and aspirations and names – and of course students want that as well.

To accomplish that essential objective requires effort on our part. Although I know that many faculty complain that they are “bad with names”, names are difficult to remember for all of us. It requires intellectual effort to memorise names, and we all have so much to do already. But if you believe that every student in your classroom matters, and you wish to cultivate and support their attention, you have an obligation to start recognising, and addressing, your students by name.

James M. Lang is the author of Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do about It (2020) and Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (second edition, 2021). He teaches literature and writing at Assumption University.


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