Wednesday, August 1, 2012

How much your students pay attention depends on where they sit in class

The conventional wisdom has always been that students can only pay attention for ten to fifteen minutes before their minds start to wander. A new study by a professor at Kennesaw State University who used eye-tracking technology to study student attention patterns says that's all wrong. Whether students are paying attention to the teacher is not due to the pre-wired characteristics of the brain but instead depends on where they are sitting in class.  You won't be surprised to hear that, according to the study, students sitting in the front of the class pay more attention than those sitting in the back.

From the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

Eye-Tracking Study Finds Students’ Attentiveness Depends on Location, Location, Location

The conventional wisdom among educators that students’ attention tends to drift off after 15 minutes is wrong, according to a new study conducted with eye-tracking devices.

The study, conducted by David Rosengrant, an assistant professor of physics education at Kennesaw State University, found no pattern in when students become distracted. Instead, students’ focus waxes and wanes throughout a lecture and is strongly affected by factors such as where in the lecture hall the student is sitting.

. . . .

Over all, though, a student’s location in the classroom was an enormous factor affecting whether the student was on task, he said.

“The students who were in the front and center of the room really were on task much more than the students in the back of the room,” Mr. Rosengrant said. A variety of reasons account for that pattern, he said. Students at the sides of the room are more likely to have to crane their necks to see the board, which is tiring, while students at the back are often distracted by the visible computer screens of those sitting in front of them.

One surprise was that students spend only 30 percent of their on-task time looking at the professor, though interest in the professor increased when he drew something on the board or went over quiz answers. When off task, students were most likely to be on Facebook or texting. Other causes of distraction were students’ entering or leaving the classroom.

“I thought the students would really spend a large majority of the time focused on me because I’m the instructor, I’m talking,” he said. “But I really found out a lot of the time that though students were paying attention and they were on task, most of the time was spent looking at the board and looking at their own notes. They didn’t spend as much time looking at me as I thought they would.”

Read the full article here.


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I must say that the second of the two "type the two words" words is becoming more and more a black smear, where an rn is indistinguishable from an m, and so on. Do the programmers who design this mechanism have a clue? Surely they sat in the back of the room, assuming they even went to class.

Posted by: Jim Maule | Aug 2, 2012 5:24:39 AM

This phenomenon pre-dates computer screens. Twenty years ago, I tracked final grades against the seating chart for several courses over a few semesters. I color-coded the grades (green for the high ones, orange for the middling ones, red for the bad ones, at a time when there were 8 rather than 10 grades). Other than a few "stand out" greens in a sea of orange or a red in the middle of a sea of greens, the colors generally progressed from green in front to read in the back. Sides were not a differentiating factor, but that might be a function of the shape of the room. The big question is: do the less engaged students deliberately choose to sit in the back, or does sitting in the back compel inferior performance? My conclusion is that it is the former. Watch students take seats on the first day of class (show up as soon as the classroom is available and not 1 minute before class begins, and observe). Consider the students' demeanor. After all these years of teaching, a variety of factors tend to suggest the degree of maturity, learning skill, and focus that students are bringing to the class and I have a pretty good batting average predicting where a student will head when looking for a seat on the first day. Another indicator, of less frequency, is the "new" student who adds the course on the second or third day of class, asks to see the seating chart, and grimaces when discovering that the only available seats are in the second or third row. Interesting article, even more interesting things to consider.

Posted by: Jim Maule | Aug 2, 2012 5:22:45 AM

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