Five Ideas to Overcome Short-Attention Spans in Students

Recently, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the league is considering speeding up their basketball games. Why? They realize people’s attention spans are shorter today. He’s right. TIME magazine reports, “The average attention span for the notoriously ill-focused goldfish is nine seconds, but according to a new study from Microsoft Corp., people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds, highlighting the affects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.”

Wow. A fish now pays attention longer than a person does.

So, Mr. Silver logically responded by saying: “It’s something that I know all of sports are looking at right now, and that is the format of the game and the length of time it takes to play the game,” he said. “Obviously people, particularly Millennials, have increasingly short attention spans, so it’s something as a business we need to pay attention to.”

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He’s right about sports, you know. For years now, professional baseball has discussed shortening the time between pitches, to reduce the total length of time it takes to play a game and to retain fans’ attention. MLB knows that baseball is a slow game.

Last November, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that the league is looking at a variety of ways to shorten football game broadcasts, including trimming advertising, to keep the action moving. For many fans, the games are just too long.

Is the Answer to Shorten the Game?

photo credit: eltpics Emotions – bored? via photopin (license)

I think we all get bored more rapidly today. Me included. Admittedly, if I become disinterested, I must get very intentional about staying engaged with a YouTube video, or a TV program or even a conversation.

But there is something else we must consider.

Teens and young adults actually can and do pay attention to people or programs for a very long time. Ask a typical high school or college student about their habits and you’ll find millions binge watch a series of programs on Netflix. Or, they will remain on social media sites for hours on end and not lose interest.

So is the answer merely to shorten the game or is it to increase their engagement?

Do we assume we must just give up on keeping kids engaged or do we find ways to keep them engaged as we lead them?

  1. Can we increase their ownership of classroom learning?
  1. Can we deepen their engagement in the conversations at home?
  1. Can we retain their attention on the practice field or locker room?
  1. Can we capture and harness their passion on the job?

I believe the answer is “yes.”

Five Ideas to Keep Students Engaged and Offer Them Ownership

Let me suggest a handful of culturally popular experiences that have captured the attention of our young and how we can use the principle they employ to increase student engagement in our classroom, home or practice field.

Escape Rooms

Escape Rooms are popping up all over America, but they were first created in Japan ten years ago. They’re physical adventure games in which players are locked in a room and must use elements in the room to solve a series of puzzles and escape within a set time limit. (The games are physical versions of “escape the room” video games.) Why are they engaging? They utilize metacognition, the Harvard-discovered method for engaging students by allowing the reflection and work to rest on their shoulders.

Likewise, we must stop giving students the answers, so they can experience “ownership” of their learning. Students learn on a need to know basis—and Escape Rooms create the need to know. They capture our imaginations and simulate real-life situations as mysteries to solve. Too often we don’t create a dilemma that engages students to discover solutions. Identifying pain points and giving autonomy are key.

Social Media

Why have social media sites like Facebook or Instagram overtaken traditional TV viewing among young adults? Two reasons. First, interface. They happen in real time and engage students to connect with each other—offering lots of back and forth. Question: Does your class feel more like TV or Facebook? We must stop lecturing. Social media sites invite interaction. It’s why students love them. Classroom lectures do not. It’s why kids hate them. Students learn by uploading their thoughts, not just by listening as we download ours. It’s about conversation—not mere information. In short, students support what they help create. We all learn better when insights come “just in time” not “just in case.” The second reason for social media’s popularity? They are visual. Lots of images, icons, emojis and bitmojies. Futurist Leonard Sweet says that images are the language of the 21st century, not words. Question—how do you leverage an image or metaphor to anchor the big idea you are communicating?

Netflix, HBO GO, and Hulu.

Shows on these platforms have garnered millions of students to engage, even when the shows act more like a traditional television show. So, what makes them different?

Two reasons. First, viewers began to care. Kids watch Netflix programs because they care about the characters and the story. The narrative draws them in and hooks them. Soon, they’re “binge-watching” the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or Game of Thrones. Question—would anyone binge watch your classroom? Do they care about what you’re saying or teaching? The second reason is—the shows are on demand. Viewers can connect anytime. Once again, students learn on a need to know basis. How could you create a challenge that makes them want or need to know your topic? Do you give them a “why” in your classroom before you launch into the “what?”


YouTube is another form of social media—but students engage with it differently than they do Instagram or Snapchat. Kids usually watch YouTube videos for pure entertainment. With some exceptions, they use it to satisfy their need to laugh. Whether it’s “Fail” clips or funny things cats do, track what videos are viewed the most and you’ll see they are short and funny. Question—how do you leverage humor in your classroom? Do you sprinkle laughter throughout just to season a potentially irrelevant subject? In light of the shorter attention spans, there is something to be said for brevity, too. The most viewed videos are less than a minute. What if we utilized micro-learning—or keeping our teaching segments to 7-10 minutes, broken up with questions, discussion or other means of engagement—in order to remain appealing and helpful?

Political Marches

On the heels of the Trump presidential inauguration, marches and protests took place and continue to this day. While our country is divided, I’ve witnessed an increasing amount of high school and college students engaged in social and political issues, marching, writing and protesting a perceived injustice. Why is this true? To be frank, disagreement and conflict draw us in. Every great movie has a conflict. Every civil rights issue involves a conflict. Today, President Trump elicits conflicting opinions. People want to express themselves and get involved. When done with civility, this can be good. Conflict interrupts our comfortable life and makes people think. When we feel someone is wronged or unnoticed, we want to stand up. It’s been said, “Martyrdom emboldens true believers.” Question: How can you leverage issues to engage students to speak and act on behalf of social justice? How can we utilize real-life, current and relevant events to foster curiosity and learning?

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Five Ideas to Overcome Short-Attention Spans in Students