Steps to paying attention: Build Motivation, Be Present, Train Your Brain, Engage with Material, Honor Your Attention Span

The Importance of Attention

The very first step to learning is paying attention. Whether in the classroom, reading a textbook, listening to a podcast, or practicing a skill for work, dedicating complete attention is absolutely critical. All of these activities entail learning. Remember: “paying” is an action. You are essentially giving your thoughts, energy, and time to what is happening in the moment. Think about when a friend, family member, or co-worker asks, “Are you paying attention to me?” Attention means focusing on what is being stated, discussed, or shown, using the senses to literally bring information into the brain

As a busy college student, there are challenges to paying attention. Below are tips and strategies for increasing your awareness about attention. And your ability to pay better attention will help your brain do what it is designed to do: learn!

1. Build Motivation

Sometimes, one of the biggest challenges to attention is motivation. Here are some ways to make motivation work in your favor:

  • Remind yourself of the “why.” Let’s say you arrive in class unmotivated to be there. Ask yourself questions such as, “What do I need to get out of today’s class to be prepared for the exam or paper?” “How will today’s topics connect to what we covered in the last class meeting?” “How can I use this class to progress in my major or towards my career goals?” These questions can quickly help establish the “why.” Similar questions can help increase motivation to do the reading or other assignment.
  • Set a goal. Go into each learning experience with something specific you want to learn, clarify, or accomplish. Try to find opportunities for the “aha” moments that come with learning.
  • Be aware of your self-talk. You may “hear” your brain saying, “I don’t feel like doing this right now.” This becomes an issue of motivation to address. Perhaps you hear, “I’m afraid I’m not going to do well.” This is a natural fear that happens to every learner at some point. Tell yourself that you can and will succeed by committing your attention and effort.
  • Reward yourself! The brain is “wired” to respond to rewards, meaning it’s a powerful motivator. Make a favorite activity (spending time with friends, playing video games, going for a run) the reward for writing a paper draft or even going to every one of your classes that day. Consider offering yourself an hour of Netflix after you have practiced teaching concepts during a group study session.

2. Be Present

To “be present” means to physically be where the attention needs to happen (such as the classroom), along with being mentally “there.” In addition to avoiding the pitfall of multitasking, here are some tips for being present in order to maximize your attention:

  • Eliminate distractions. Some of this can be accomplished by managing your environment. This includes removing cues associated with other activities, keeping your phone off and out of sight, and sitting close to the front when in the classroom.
  • Do a “brain dump” to get distracting ideas out of your head. For example, you may be thinking about an errand you have run, or a conversation you need to have with someone. Part of the brain dump can be to assign a time in the week to deal with those tasks, which frees up the brain’s need to hold onto it out of fear of forgetting.
  • Try not to overschedule. Yes, you are likely balancing your academics, work, relationships, and many other things. Overscheduling is not just saying “yes” to too many time commitments. Overscheduling also can include scheduling activities back-to-back, without any transition time in between. This can not only create stress (a BIG obstacle to being present), but also create “attention residue.” For example, if you leave work to go to class and are still thinking about work when you arrive in class, that’s attention residue! Leaving some time, even brief amounts, to think about, resolve, or document those issues before going into learning mode can be a way to prevent this. A brain dump can also help alleviate the attention residue before moving on to your next learning task.

3. Train Your Brain

Attention is based in the brain, and you can “train your brain” to pay better attention. Some of what has already been described above helps with the brain training, such as creating learning environments without distractions and building in rewards. Remember, though, the brain treats every waking moment as an opportunity to learn, so what we do outside of formal learning environments can still impact the brain’s ability to pay full attention. Here are some ways to train your brain:

  • Practice single-tasking. Whether having a conversation, listening to a class lecture, or watching a movie, our brain is taking in information. If this is paired with taking out your cell phone to play a game, text, or browse social media, the brain’s attention is split between more than one set of stimuli. The brain does not have the ability to multitask, and the more often you do this, the more you are forcing the brain to pay less attention to any one thing. The result can be actually decreasing the brain’s ability to concentrate (pay full attention) and contemplate (think deeply about one thing). By single-tasking, you build more efficient brain chemistry, priming the brain to get the most out of every learning situation.
  • Challenge the boredom response. As mentioned earlier in the motivation section, every learner feels unmotivated from time to time. However, your response to when attention starts to drift can either improve or impair your learning in the moment. If you typically reach for a device when beginning to feel attention drift, you are creating a “boredom response.” In many cases, it’s not that you’re truly “bored”; rather, you haven’t tapped into your motivation or made efforts to connect concepts and engage with the material. By reaching for your device whenever you think you’re bored, you’re training your brain to be less effective! How can you respond instead when attention begins to drift? See #4!

4. Engage with the Material

One of the best ways to keep your attention is to be an active learner. Many students were never taught how to be active in a learning situation. This leads to students believing the way to learn is to passively listen, or to write down what is being said word for word. Here are three ways to be active in the moment and avoid the boredom response:

  • Take notes actively. There are many ways to take effective notes, all of which involve connecting concepts while documenting new information. This is different from writing down everything on the board, or every word said in class. Taking notes actively is a purposeful effort, which not only requires more attention, but also leads to deeper learning.
  • Read actively. Students often say that reading a college-level textbook or article is challenging, making it hard to pay attention. Reading actively involves writing down cues and key words, checking for understanding as you go along, and summarizing in your own words.
  • Question actively. Asking questions out loud or even in your head is one of the best ways to keep your attention level high. In the classroom, take the opportunity to ask your professor for clarification. During class, ask how the concepts or information being shared connect to what you already know or understand. While reading, ask yourself “why” and “how” questions, along with connecting the reading to what you either already know or are trying to learn.

5. Honor Your Attention Span

Simply put, even the most motivated learner can only pay attention for a certain amount of time before getting fatigued. It’s important to figure out how long you can keep your full attention before becoming tired and less efficient. Make sure to plan ahead so there are enough shorter study times during the week to have enough academic time-on-task. Learning works best with spaced practice instead of cramming, which also is a more effective approach for paying attention. The next step involved in the learning process is to “work the information,” which is described in the Practice, Practice, Practice section of this website.

NOTE: Focusing our attention can be challenging for various reasons, including life stressors, multiple demands on our time, and issues with information processing. These strategies offer some actionable options for managing attention, recognizing that some students may need additional guidance or support. This may include working with a Peer Academic Coach, scheduling an appointment with University Counseling, or contacting the Disability Services Center.

Video: The Pomodoro Technique

Watch our video on The Pomodoro Technique, an effective approach to maximizing your attention by single-tasking!

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