Getting and keeping student’s attention is an important skill for any teacher to have.  Research from cognitive theories of learning, show us that attention plays a critical role in a student’s capacity to learn and retain information.  Slavin (2012) suggests that automatic attention is governed by several factors: personal relevance, familiarity, novelty, contrast, changes and emotion.

Stahl's Information Processing Model

Stahl’s Information Processing Model

When we make information personally relevant to the learner it grabs attention because it means something to them.  When information is personally relevant, students understand that the learnt material has a purpose and is useful for them in their life.

Familiarity affects attention as it is really hard to ignore things that we are familiar with. This is because the brain processes new information in the context of existing information, acting like a filter.  By referencing things that learners are already aware of, we can help learners link new information to something they are already familiar with.

Research by Bunzeck and Düzel shows that humans are driven by stimulus novelty. Humans love shiny new things!  Using a varied instructional approach and allowing learners to explore and discover new things can increase attention.  Over planning and controlling everything that happens in the classroom is a sure way to kill any spontaneity that gives rise to novelty.

Have you ever read a book that someone has gone through and highlighted portions of the text?  It is nearly impossible to ignore the highlighted text because of the contrast the highlighting creates.  Contrasting visuals and instructional materials can be useful to get attention.  I would like to think we could go deeper here and use questioning to create a contrast between a student’s existing thinking and new ways of thinking.

Change builds on the reasoning behind novelty and is fairly self-explanatory; no one wants to listen to the same thing the same way day after day. Changing the way information is presented and in different spaces can capture and sustain attention. Even simple changes like change in intonation or expression can make a difference.

Increasing the emotional content of the material can also increase attention.  According to Vuilleumier (2005) attention activates some of the same parts of the brain that emotion does (which could explain the appeal of soap operas and drama filled reality shows to so many).  Increasing emotional content could look so many ways in a classroom, but I like the idea of building in empathy, relatedness and linking material back to how things relate to us as humans in the real world.

The limitations of the principles that govern automatic attention is that it is teacher driven.  It does not address teaching children how to regulate their own attention or engagement and motivational drivers.  Nevertheless, knowing what affects student’s attention levels gives teachers a distinct advantage in enabling the information being taught, to be processed and remembered.


Further reading:

Cognitive Psychology & Information Processing Theory:



Schunk, D. H.  (2008).  Learning  Theories: An Educational Perspective. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Slavin, R. E. (2012). Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice. (10th ed.) Chapter 6.

Vuilleumier, P. (2005). How brains beware: neural mechanisms of emotional attention: Trends in Cognitive Science, 9, 12.


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