Research has consistently shown that the average person's ability to focus on one subject is limited to about 10-20 minutes. Unfortunately, most of the classes we teach last 80 minutes, so a persistent question for instructors looking out at distracted faces is: "How do I 're-capture' this class?" Below, a few simple and easy 'switch it up' techniques—techniques which have the ability to reset the clock on your students' attention—will be reviewed.
2-4 Minute Small Group Discussion
After lecturing for 15-20 minutes, instead of letting your students drift off, stop your lecture and institute a small group discussion. It is best to have a question or a specific topic formulated—if you can have it written on the board or as a 'slide' in your presentation all the better. Tell your students to turn to a neighbor and introduce themselves. Inform them that they only have a few minutes to discuss the topic and then you will discuss their findings as a class. Keep a close eye on the class, if you pay attention, you will be able to see if anyone is having a hard time getting a conversation going—you can visit with that group and ask a few questions to get them started. After a few minutes, ask them to stop and debrief (what debriefing is and its importance in short exercises will be discussed at the end of this article).
Notecard Writing Assignment
Often called a one-minute paper, this exercise asks students to individually write a response to some prompt related to the classroom topic at hand. Like the small group discussion, it helps if you have a prompt—which might be simple (e.g., What is your reaction to X?) or might be more complex (e.g., Define topic Y and defend your definition)—written out for them to see and reflect on as they write. Ask the students to take out a piece of paper, or give them a piece of paper or a note card. Assure your students that this is free-writing, meant to get their thoughts in motion, and that they shouldn't worry about whether their spelling or grammar are correct, and that if they want, they should even feel free to not write in sentences at all. Give your students an appropriate amount of time for your prompt, and again, after that period of time, return to the center of the class and debrief.
These exercises are easiest if you have a 'controversy,' but can work as long as there are different perspectives on one idea. Identify two sides of an issue (this might even just be whether answer X is correct or not) and ask a student how s/he would defend side A (this pushes the student to find the supporting evidence whether they agree or not) Ask other students to 'help' the first student out with additional support for his/r argument. Then ask another student to respond on the other side. After the first two sides are clearly defined, ask the class if there are any other sides of the debate that need to be addressed. Debrief.
Debriefing is the practice of reflecting on the exercise just completed. If you don't give your students space to process and a way to put what they have just done in perspective, then they will often fail to see how what they just did contributes to their learning goals and you might not have as much 'buy-in' next time. After completing the exercise you want to make sure that your students understand why they just did that exercise and what you had hoped they would get from it. It can be useful to also solicit thoughts from your students about whether they thought the exercise was useful.
By giving students a space to reflect not only on the material, but also on the different ways that material can be handled, you are helping them to think critically about their work—thus making them active in their own learning process.
There are many more ways to make your classroom an active classroom, but these are three simple exercises that you can do on any day and without changing the whole structure of your course. Try them out and see how they work in your classes!
For another take on this, read Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish's article, The "Change-Up" in Lectures.