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Student Engagement

Resetting the Student Attention Clock

The length of time an average university student could concentrate on a task without becoming distracted back in 1973, according to a survey published at the time, was between 10 and 20 minutes. A 2006 survey by Diana Oblinger, current president of Educause, determined that the average student attention span had shrunk to around seven minutes.

Christopher Forest, Assistant Professor of Clinical Family Medicine at USC's Keck School of Medicine and longtime researcher on the role of technology in the classroom, presented this worrying trend to attendees at the recent CT Forum in Long Beach, CA, following up with an equally worrying question.

"Any guesses on whether that number has gotten any better?" he asked.

Capturing the attention of digitally distracted students has become one of the great challenges of modern higher education, Forest observed — he called it "the seven-minute challenge." But the discouraging results of the latter survey actually provide a kind of attention-span baseline that can be used to develop more effective attention-maximizing strategies.

"That number is astounding to a lot of educators," Forest said. "But believe me, it's well known in television and media, and you'll notice it's influence on the length of news stories and the timing of commercials. The challenge today for educators is to be aware of this dynamic and to create a curriculum that maximizes student engagement."

Forest, who presented with Keck colleagues Sabba Quidwai, director of innovative learning, and Maria Maldonado, an instructor of clinical family medicine, stressed that educators must accommodate this modern attention interval by actually doing something different every seven minutes or so to "reset the clock" and re-engage students.

"This is actually something well regarded teachers have always done, probably instinctively, to maintain a connection with their students," he said. "It could be something as simple as changing their vocal intonations, or something more sophisticated with technology."

And by technology, Forest definitely didn't mean PowerPoint. Though once seen as the magic solution to boring lectures, Microsoft's powerful presentation software failed to produce engaging lectures and captivate audiences. In fact, it led to the phenomenon known as "Death by PowerPoint."

"The temptation is always to read off the slides, which puts students to sleep," he said. "PowerPoint is great software, but there's just no magic solution to being a dynamic educator."

Learn More

Apple Distinguished Educator Sabba Quidwai teaches an online course through iTunes U (“Digital Literacy: Faculty Edition”), under the auspices of the Keck School of Medicine's Division of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Southern California, that shows how educators can use digital tools to enhance the teaching and learning experience. Links to the course and other resources are available on the TrojanPA site.

But there is an ed tech market full of technologies that are much more effective at resetting that student attention clock. Forest, Quidwai and Maldonado, who describe themselves as a "passionate inter-professional team," are focused on helping educators use those technologies to move past PowerPoint to develop dynamic learning environments.

Quidwai demonstrated several solutions during the presentation, emphasizing that a dynamic learning environment takes advantage of technologies for alternatives to traditional assessment.

"Typically when we think about assessment, we think multiple choice exams and essays, maybe some kind of end-of-the-year presentations," she said. "But now that students have these powerful mobile devices in their hands — whether it's iPads, smartphones, or whatever — we can ask, what other types of assessment pieces are they now able to produce?"

One of Quidwai's favorite tools for coping with the seven-minute attention span is Nearpod, a platform for managing content on student iPads, iPhones, iPods and Macs. This solution almost perfectly fits the definition "beyond PowerPoint." Educators use it to create or download interactive multimedia presentations, which can be shared with students in real time. The students actually interact with the presentation and submit responses, and the teacher monitors and measures student results on both an individual and aggregate basis.

Also on Quidwai's list: Socrative, a formative assessment tool that visualizes students’ answers in real time and collects data on past activities; Google Docs, the online document collaboration tool; and Kahoot, a game-based classroom response system.

Yet another level of dynamism can be achieved through so-called screencasting, Quidwai said, which involves the digital recording of computer screen output that is narrated by the student.

"With screencasting, they show me their work and talk about it," she said. "And I get to hear the students' analysis. I hear from students I don't often hear from in class—the shy students and the students for whom English is a second language."

Forest pointed to the value derived from employing Google Docs to report the results of an annual "windshield survey," in which his students were charged with analyzing the medical needs of underserved areas of Los Angeles. Before employing the app, Forest couldn't assess the students' work until after it was turned in as a massive document at the end of the project. Google Docs allowed him to check on student progress and offer input throughout the project.

But Forest recently began experimenting with another approach to the windshield survey, substituting 10- to 15-minute video documentaries for the written reports. "I asked myself, 'What is it exactly that I want my students to come away with?'" he said. "I wanted them to truly understand their patients' needs — not just the medicine, but also their backgrounds and the challenges they faced living in these underserved communities." Students used their iPads and iMovie to create the documentaries, which were posted online and made available to the public.

"The students could have done their research online and maybe never even talked to any of the people in these neighborhoods," Quidwai said. "If our objective was to get them out into the community so they could understand the needs of the people there when they become patients, this approach did a much better job of meeting those objectives."

"Students have phones in their pockets that have cameras, video recorders, even editing tools," Quidwai said. "We just exploited that technology — and we definitely captured their attention."

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