According to several studies, the attention span of the average human being is about 10-15 minutes. Other studies say that the 15 minute attention span has declined over the last decade and reached an all-time low of 5 minutes. Still other studies are more optimistic and say that the average college student can focus for about 18 minutes without losing focus.
It doesn’t matter what number you look at—the fact is, students today do not have the attention span of previous generations.
Decreasing Attention Span
I went to Ghana last year as a chaperone with a choral group from my local university. As the choir students sang for audiences comprised of Ghanaian adults, teenagers, and children alike, I was astonished at the incredible attention span of the children. Not only did large groups of 20-30 young children sit together in the front row without parental supervision, but they sat quietly, calmly, and respectfully until the concert concluded.
Could any group of American children do the same? Could college students? I doubt it.
And college is precisely the problem. College students’ attention spans are slowly decreasing, largely thanks to social media and technology, and it is changing the way society is approaching education. The children in Africa were enamored with our cameras, our phones, our tablets. They still live the technology-free life American kids used to live before the TV became a staple in every household and even 4th graders had smartphones.
And their attention span is three times that of the average American college student, who can’t focus on a lecture for longer than 10 minutes.
So what’s to be done?
Accept the Erosion
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ’em, right? Teachers everywhere know that if they stand up in front of a classroom and lecture for 90 minutes, the students will only take in about 10 minutes of information before they tune out. Some teachers intersperse lecture time with quizzes, activities, and group discussion to keep their students focused. Others sit back and let the students lead the discussion of material they read the night before.
Other teachers have turned to newer, more modern methods like massively open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs are college courses taken online by a practically unlimited number of students that cover any topic from math problems about car insurance companies in Halifax to lectures on the merits of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets. The students watch videos of lectures and then do the appropriate homework on their own time.
MOOCs have advantages such as cheaper tuition, the ability to reach a massive audience instead of a single classroom, and they force professors to give direct, focused lectures. Students taking MOOCs have little or no contact with their professor, however, and simply watch lectures online and do their work on their own time.
Classrooms everywhere are adapting to accommodate the way instant streaming, sound bites, texting, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook allow media users to obtain information instantly with very little effort. Times are changing, and teaching methods are (for better or worse) changing with them.
Challenge the Erosion
To some degree, I understand why teachers are trying to cater to the students. For thousands of years, people attended lectures and sermons that lasted for hours, and they sat through them without the distraction of text messages and snapchats. But the last few decades have changed that, and it only makes sense that teachers would want to conform to the needs of their students, who, after all, are simply a product of the technological age in which they live.
But it feels wrong to indulge the technology. Short attention spans might be something we have to deal with, but catering to the demands of tweets and YouTube videos that demand information in quick, succinct packages seems wrong.
MOOCs and Attention Span
MOOCs might be the wrong way to handle the frankly alarming lack of focus in the classroom. There are definite advantages, but surely the traditional way of learning shouldn’t be abandoned without a fight. It’s worked for centuries, and with increased class discussion, student-led presentations, quizzes, and teachers who know how to engage their students without just lecturing at them (because after all, lectures from the time of Aristotle and Plato are a little too traditional), there are distinct advantages in the classroom too.
Nothing can replace the human interaction between student and teacher. MOOCs cannot facilitate discussions between students, are much easier to drop out of, (some statistics say there is a 90% dropout rate), and may slowly erode traditional higher education, which will reduce the need for qualified, trained professors with personal working relationships with students who need to benefit from their knowledge.
Nor can MOOCs offer the “college experience”—the social and intellectual interaction with other students in a classroom is eliminated completely.
The bottom line is this: online courses might not be the solution to dealing with short attention spans caused (at least in part) by social media and technology; it feels more like we’re fanning the fire instead of trying to put it out. Unless MOOCs are complemented by traditional classroom experiences in which college students can learn to improve their attention spans instead of simply accepting them as a byproduct of the Technological Age, they aren’t doing anybody any favors.
Melanie Hargrave is a wife and homemaker whose family is her pride and joy.