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Along the Journey  |  

How to Keep Learners Engaged

Students learn when they pay attention. If they don’t pay attention, they don’t learn.

Studies suggest that the average attention span for adults can range from 10 to 20 minutes but can vary depending on factors such as the individual’s level of interest in the topic, their physical state, and the environment in which the learning is taking place. While attention might wane after this period, it doesn’t mean that learning stops.

Here are eight ways to help learners stay engaged:

  1. Make the material relevant. Connect the topic to the learners’ lives and experiences. The brain pays attention to what it perceives as relevant and meaningful. For adults, learning is motivated by a problem they are trying to solve or a need to address.
  2. Use stimulus variation. Present using various teaching methods: lectures, group work, hands-on activities, and media. Knowing that attention wanes within 15 to 20 minutes, vary the methods or stimuli accordingly.
  3. Control the pace and the discourse. Change activities every 10 to 15 minutes to keep learners engaged and control the discourse flow. Don’t allow “chasing rabbits” or decrease the pace of teaching so much that students begin to lose interest and stop paying attention.
  4. Encourage active participation. Use questions, discussions, and dialogical and kinesthetic exercises that require learner input.
  5. Use humor. Humor can make learning more enjoyable and memorable and reduce anxiety to allow learning.
  6. Incorporate storytelling. Stories can make complex topics more understandable and engaging. The brain makes meaning through narrative. Stories illustrate complex concepts and demonstrate the application of a topic or idea.
  7. Create a safe and comfortable environment. Learners are more likely to participate if they feel their input is valued and they won’t be criticized or ridiculed. Adult learners have a wealth of experience. Encouraging and valuing their input is a motivator and makes learning meaningful.
  8. Use real-world examples. Practical applications can make theoretical concepts come alive. Adult learners are motivated by a perceived or actual need. If the content is irrelevant to them, they stop paying attention.

Finally, effective teachers practice “attention with-it-ness” by scanning the room and noting the attentional state of the learners. If one sees two or more students not paying attention, it’s time for an intervention. Remember, if students don’t pay attention, they don’t learn.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Programs of the Center for Lifelong Learning.

Along the Journey Dr. G. & Friends