What science tells us about student attention

What is attention?

On an average day, we process 11 million bits of information every second. However, our brain discards 99% of the information we are exposed to. This begs the questions: can we leverage insights from cognitive science to capture and sustain our audience’s attention? can learners direct and control their attentional filter?

Attention is the ability to direct and maintain focus for a given period of time while ignoring distractions. Our neurons select the most important bits of information to focus on. These neurons serve as our attentional filter which plays a critical role in our learning as information can only be processed and remembered if it makes it through our attentional controls. 

Attention is deeply entangled with processing speed and working memory, these three are our processing skills. Out of all of them, attention is the first processing skill to be tasked when we are receiving information.

There are 4 different types of attention:

  • Sustained Attention: the ability to focus on one thing for long periods of time.
  • Selective Attention: the ability to focus on one stimulus while ignoring distractions.
  • Divided Attention: the ability to focus on more than one thing at once.
  • Alternating Attention: the ability to switch focus quickly from one task to another.

Attention in the classroom

It is a well-known fact that attention is an incredibly important aspect of learning and one that educators are extremely worried about. Most people can recognize the relevance of attention in the learning process, but student’s attention can be elusive. Educators have the crucial task of figuring out how to gain students’ attention, how to keep students’ attention, and how to determine if students are, in fact, paying attention. Otherwise, students can sabotage their brain’s ability to capture and transmit information for problem-solving or to adequately retrieve learned information. The Science of Learning can be a helpful ally for educators, as it not only teaches them the science behind attention, but also shows them practical strategies that they can apply in their classrooms to capture students’ attention. For example, using silence purposefully or asking students to make predictions. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that in order to make the most out of these techniques it is crucial that educators understand the inner workings of our Cognitive Skills.

Effects of technology on student attention

Research reveals that we are increasingly inattentive. This is in part due to our use of technology, which promotes divided attention and produces short-term gratification. Students tend to prefer this type of gratification instead of the sustained attention and effort that is commonly associated with learning. Things like social media and video games constantly feed our Divided Attention, which can be an obstacle when studying and learning. As a result, students expect schools to mimic video games and social media. However, following this approach when designing learning strategies can end up weakening students’ attention spans. Technology can reduce our sustained attention (essential for learning) if we are rapidly shifting between activities that continuously provoke dopamine releases, which is common in video games and all too common when students “study” while texting and listening to music.


As educators, it is incredibly important to know how to keep students’ attention since inattentiveness can lead to poor learning outcomes, disinterest in learning, and misdiagnosis. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, just one generation ago ADHD affected approximately one in 25 students in the United States. Today, one in five high school boys are diagnosed with ADHD. 

That being said, ADHD’s main symptom, inattentiveness, can be explained in many other ways. Inattentiveness often masks another cognitive weakness and manifests as a symptom of the weakness. Furthermore, for many students, instead of attentional difficulty causing learning failure, failure to learn causes frustration, disinterest, and inattention. Therefore, it is crucial that we always analyze inattention with a comprehensive approach. 


Agarwal, P. (2021). Sway: Unravelling unconscious bias. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Next Steps

Learn evidence-based strategies to motivate and engage students in the classroom (Module 3: Addressing Processing Speed)

Discover the relationship between attention and other processing skills: working memory and processing speed


Discover working memory, its effects on other processing skills and how to avoid cognitive overload (Module 4: Leverage Working Memory)

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