Have you heard that (partly thanks to smartphones) humans have a shorter average attention span than goldfish?
Goldfish: nine seconds.
This sounds a little unsettling considering that, as humans, our futures largely depend on having to pay attention in class for hours on end. However, we have something the goldfish don’t: a prefrontal cortex, a.k.a. the part of our brain that allows for planning and willpower. As the saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.” So given all of our abilities, it is our duty to bring our own vitality to the classroom—every day, in every subject.
For the good of our edification, our future, and our sanity, let’s look at some strategies for staying engaged—for longer than eight seconds. Let's show those goldfish what we’re capable of.
1. First, get your mind right.
Much of how we perform any task starts with how we set up our mentality. Before your next class, instead of thinking, “I’m tired” or “This class is going to be so boring,” try thinking “How interesting, I get to learn something today that I’ve never heard of!” or “Today I’m going to stay alert by pretending I’m taking notes for someone who’s absent.” Come up with whatever thought helps you establish a mindset that works for you and not against you.
2. Minimize distractions.
Choosing to sit in the front of the class will help in a few ways. First, it will prevent you from looking at all the people and eye-catching things going on between you and the front of the classroom. Second, sitting right in front of the teacher will remind you to keep your phone out of sight. Phones apparently want all the attention; don’t give in! Instead, get distracted by everything the teacher is saying. Also, being in front is just more engaging. People pay big money for front row seats at concerts, sporting events, and plays. Front row seats in class are free!
3. Optimize your note-taking skills.
Rather than trying to write everything down, listen as if the teacher is speaking just to you and jot down the key concepts. To make note-taking even more effective, experiment with formats, abbreviations, and pen colors. Mark any parts you don’t understand so you can ask questions. Involving yourself in this active note-taking process will keep your brain on task. Moreover, according to psychologist Stanislas Dehaene, “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated” and “learning is made easier.” And the more you learn in class, the less you will have to study before an exam.
4. Be active.
Other than taking notes, find ways to be active. The most beneficial way is probably to use your voice. Asking questions, answering questions, and contributing to class discussions not only helps you better understand the material, but also helps you stay alert and feel part of the class. Even just good posture, making eye contact, and nodding to affirm you’re listening can help make class lectures feel less like a monologue and more like a dialogue between you and your teacher.
5. Talk to your teachers.
Be open to developing a relationship with even your most intimidating teachers. By interacting with them before, during, or after class, you’ll start to know them a little better. Once you feel more connected to them, you’ll likely feel more personally invested in their purpose and thus the class. This will further reduce your chances of being bored and increase your chances of getting good grades. As a bonus, if you ever need a letter of recommendation or some help, there’s a better chance your teacher will go the extra mile for you.
6. Be prepared.
When you are not understanding what has happened in class so far, it’s like coming into a conversation late: you’re confused, bored, and can’t contribute much. Consequently, staying engaged becomes a struggle and learning becomes nearly impossible. To avert such a dreadful situation, before going to class, look over the main points covered last time and ask classmates or teachers any questions you have. You’ll then be able to take interest and participate in class. Plus, less stress about being lost or falling behind will also contribute to a more fun experience. And you’ll always perform better, no matter what you’re doing, when you’re having fun.
Kiley A. teaches SAT/ACT Writing and leads College Application Workshops at Elite Prep Rowland Heights. As the Elite Community Scholars Coordinator, he also works to spread this college preparation guidance to low-income, first-generation students who may not otherwise have access to such support. Above all, he wants his students to know the far-reaching power of their own self-assurance.