n the 1970s, my mother, a fifth-grade teacher, would lament, “The TV remote has ruined my classroom! I can almost feel the kids trying to point a clicker at me to change the channel!” Little did she know that college students today don’t need to wish for a remote control to switch from their professor to entertainment—an endless assortment of distractions are all on their smart phones.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that students retain little of our lectures, and research on determining the “average attention span,” while varying, seems to congregate around eight to ten minutes (“Attention Span Statistics,” 2015), (Richardson, 2010). Research discussed in a 2009 Faculty Focus article by Maryellen Weimer questions the attention span research, while encouraging instructors to facilitate student focus.
When I began teaching in 2006, I assumed that students could read anything I say. Therefore, my classes consisted of debates of, activities building on, and direct application of theories taught in the readings—no lectures.
But I noticed that students had difficulty understanding the content in a way that enabled accurate and deep application without some framing from me. In short, I needed to lecture—at least a little. This is when I began the eight-minute lecture. If you’re worried that eight minutes is too long, I discovered that when students experience many short lectures throughout the semester, they learn to focus in those bursts, in part because they know the lecture will be brief.
How to implement the eight-minute lecture
1. Prepare students – Early in the semester, explain your teaching methodology and your rationale for doing things a certain way. This helps manage students’ expectations. Most of my students study engineering and expect to mostly listen to lectures and take notes. They are less accustomed to an active learning environment that involves lots of debates on the readings, small group discussions and report-backs, short reflection papers, quick multiple choice clicker quizzes, problem sets, and/or short lectures.
2. Redesign/rewrite lectures – Review your lectures to identify natural breaks. Where can you pause without losing meaning? How can you use students’ knowledge from their homework and previous learning as a scaffold?
Next, look for areas in your lecture where you talk about something that instead can be learned from an image, video, or interactive activity, and substitute accordingly. Cull through the content until you have eliminated two-thirds of your lecture material.
An example from last semester
Toward the end of last semester, I began a module on global business. The learning objectives for the first 50-minute class period on the topic were to be able to discuss the origins and benefits/costs of globalization and to test global business theories against existing corporate outcomes.
In preparation, students read a textbook chapter delineating the history and theories of success in global business, and completed either an interview with a manager working internationally or an analysis of global business news (their choice).
With this preparation, they came to class with a firm grasp of global business terminology and context. Further, as this class period came toward the end of the semester, students had a basic working knowledge of management and leadership theory; Western business history; and the interaction of business, government, and the global economy.
I started out by asking a question related to their preparation. I then began my first eight-minute lecture, introducing them to the concept of balance of payments while displaying current numbers up on the screen. Once I explained trade imbalances, I asked questions that weren’t answered in their reading or my lecture, but were answerable with careful reflection on both.
For example, “How might you incorporate your previous learning on the supply and demand curve to understand how exchange rates influence global business?”
Once this topic was fully explored, I gave another eight-minute lecture, and then engaged them in a new activity that taught the next learning objective. At the end of class, I tested to ensure that the objectives had been met by asking students for a one-to-three-sentence note card summarizing their learning. The success of this method of interspersing mini-lectures with activities, discussions, and time for reflection was validated by the final exam scores achieved by the students in this class, which surpassed those of previous semesters.
Statistics Brain Research Institute. “Attention Span Statistics.” April 2, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.statisticbrain.com/attention-span-statistics/.
Richardson, H. “Students only have ‘10-minute attention span’.” News.bbc.co.uk. January, 2010. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/8449307.stm.
Wilson, K. and Korn, J. H. “Attention during lectures: Beyond ten minutes.” Teaching of Psychology 34, no. 2 (2007): 85–89.
Illysa Izenberg is a lecturer for the Center for Leadership Education in the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.