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Manage attention

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Attention is the cognitive capacity to select and focus on some information while not focusing on other information. Attention is crucial for learning; if students can’t focus or sustain attention, their learning will be slow going and ineffective. Attention is a limited resource; people have difficulty attending to multiple sources of information simultaneously. It is easy for students to become distracted and overloaded with information.   


  1. Segment class time. Break up long class periods into segments with momentary pauses and explicit transitions between topics.

  2. Reorient students to topics and material during class. Describe the organization of the lesson as you go—provide road signs. Point out how topics are related and how they relate to the overall goal of the lesson.

  3. At the end of a segment highlight or summarize key points or, better yet, ask students to highlight, summarize or work with the material such as think-pair-share or thought-provoking clicker questions.

  4. Draw a diagram or picture.

  5. In small group settings:

    • monitor groups. Intervene when off task. Or ask that one student in each group monitor off task activity and remind group to focus.
    • manage the pace of the activity; Try to provide enough time but not too much time to complete the activity.
    • ask for a product from each group member [individual accountability]
  6. As the instructor, take inventory on how you create distractions or make it difficult to focus attention, e.g., technology problems that interrupt class, telling side stories not germane to the topic at hand, pace is too slow or too fast, rushing through material at the end of class, lack of connection with students.

  7. Adopt a class policy that will minimize distractions from electronic devices.
  8. Help students become aware of how multitasking will make learning harder, not easier.

Tips to Manage Attention Effectively  

  • Students have difficulty managing their attention when they are overloaded with too much new information. The videos below under Resources explain how and why students are so easily overloaded and how instructors can help manage cognitive load to improve their learning and reduce distractibility.

  • Students also have difficulty managing their attention when the information they perceive it as redundant or material they already know. In these situations, rather than give students another lecture, instructors can engage students more fully by asking them to practice using the material, explain it, or teach the material. 


Cerbin, W. (2015). Manage attention. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from