Do I Have Your Attention? Eye-Tracking Study Provides Insight

Check these things out. The company Tobii Technology strapped those bad boys on to eight college students during a four-month pilot study at Kennesaw State University. The portable Tobii Glasses use eye-tracking technology for research in real-world environments. David Rosengrant, associate professor of physics education, delivered 70-minute lectures to students wearing the devices in an effort to record their eye movements to better understand engagement in classroom settings.

There is a misconception that the typical student’s attention span is about 10 to 15 minutes long. An entry on Washington University in St Louis’ iTeach newsletter reads: “ In a 2007 literature review, however, Wilson and Korn found no evidence to support this belief. In fact, in an examination of the references given for this very precise span estimate, Wilson and Korn found that most were based on remarkably imprecise studies of attention. For example, one study found that note-taking by students generally declined over the duration of a lecture. The researchers interpreted this decline as evidence of a decrease in attention; however, they found no direct evidence of a consistent 10 to 15 minute attention span.”

Professor Rosengrant’s and Tobii Technology’s study also contradicts the widely held 15-minute belief. Classroom attention, it turns out, is not as linear as generally believed. The students’ attention spans were impacted by a variety of factors that took place during the lecture. Rosengrant augmented his traditional PowerPoint presentation with additional verbal presentation, which is something students tend to appreciate. How many PowerPoint presentations have you seen where the presenter just reads each slide word for word and contributes no additional commentary? By spicing up the presentation, Rosengrant was able to keep students’ attention.

Additional factors that contributed to classroom attention included the usage of humor during the lecture and also the distance between the professor and the student. Well-placed humor will always perk up a student’s attention span during a lecture, and as Biola’s Matthew Weathers points out, humor can also be used to introduce a concept before a lecture even begins.

The space that lies between instructor and student calls to mind the typical cavernous lecture halls found at many large universities. As an alumnus of a school with an student population below that of a typical high school, I can report that being in a smaller class sitting close to the professor stimulates attention span in a way that crowded lecture halls with professors positioned far away do not. Rosengrant instructed a group of eight students and was in relative close proximity to them which likely contributed to their attention.

The eye-tracking study also goes on to comment on “digital distractions” such as mobile phones and laptops with internet access. “…the Web, particularly Facebook, are the greatest inhibitors to retaining students’ attention in the classroom. From these insights, Rosengrant stresses the need for professors to alter their lecture structure through the injection of varying activities and the use of humor to engage students.”

Professor Rosengrant is planning to publish the study “Studying Student Attention via Eye Tracking” in the fall. Hopefully Rosengrant’s study will provide additional insight about students’ attention spans in the classroom.