7 Ways to Keep Students’ Attention in an Online Class

Welcome to the world of online instruction.

Yes, it has been around for quite a while, but in recent months it wasn't something you could choose to do or not. “Pivot” and “reinvent” have been trending words as we discuss education and teaching. Every teacher must produce online content. Luckily, tools for moving to instruction online exist. The marketplace is crowded with ways to present information digitally, and it’s easy to find articles about the digital tools available and how to use them. These articles are useful and needed. I want my Zoom classroom to be more secure, and I’m happy to know that Flipgrid exists, for example. But what the articles don’t tell you is that no one is paying attention.

Even in person, we never have 100% attention. There are always students in the back of room doodling, and kids slyly chat with each other. Those not obviously off track may still mentally wander off for a bit. (I just remembered that I forgot money for pizza day!) Children are simply unable to give their full attention in classrooms. They do a great job paying attention if the content is valuable, the materials are stimulating, and the teacher is engaging, but total attention all the time? Unlikely.

Now visualize remote instruction and think about the amount of attention students give outside of the classroom. Are students watching on a smartphone while eating breakfast? On a small screen after they take the tablet from a sibling who is fighting for it? Is the TV on in the background? Does the dog want attention? Is the laptop set on the counter so they can play Xbox while they watch? Are they switching to other open tabs on the browser to see if they got any likes on Instagram and TikTok posts? Did they turn off the camera for a minute to call a friend?

Simply put, 100% of the time kids are in a distance learning situation, they are distracted.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Even adults don’t do well online. I got to the bottom of a 1,000-word online article and got a congratulatory note.

Source: CPR News (cpr.org)


Rewarded for actually finishing an article! Who finishes an article online? Almost no one, it seems. And for young people, the finishing rate is probably worse.

Remote teaching design, then, must take into consideration the reality of permanent partial attention. No matter what tool you use, this reality applies. It forces us to change the way we create instruction. Here are ways you can improve the online instructional experience for your class:

1. Understand the audience.

Know that they are distracted. Know what kind of devices they are using so you can design optimally for the device. Realize that attention spans are very small.

2. Cut back on content.

Stick to "absolutely must know" and include only a little of "would be good to know." Be ruthless. “But it’s all important!” No, it isn’t. Some things are critical; some aren’t. If you veer off into less important or unimportant, you increase the chance of losing attention.

3. Be very clear about organization and transitions.

Because students have wandered off digitally or physically, have very explicit transitions. “Now that we have looked at the causes of acid rain, we will talk about three ways that acid rain affects us” followed by, “Those were the three ways that acid rain affects us.” Someone giving partial attention now knows what they missed and must get.

4. Alter visual aids.

What works in a classroom doesn’t work on a three-inch screen. A screencast of your PowerPoint presentation is a way to guarantee that your students will tune out. Use more images. Embed very short videos.

5. Improve your oral communication skills.

Speaking that is acceptable or tolerable in person can be deadly online. Small speakers make voices less impressive. Normal inflection when recorded sounds monotonous. Small screens showing only shoulders and face reduce a teacher’s impact. A talking head can never compete with a human in person. Students tune out podcasts quickly because of dull speaking, so you have to add much more life to your voice, and you must teach your students to improve their speaking skills so they will be listened to, also.

6. Make camera contact.

It is the online version of eye contact, and it is critical to engagement. Look at the viewers by talking to the camera rather than watching yourself on the screen as you record.

7. Make sure the tool you use doesn’t have built-in distractions.

A chat box is guaranteed to help students veer off. Ways to alter personal images and backgrounds give students things to play with instead of attending.

Will these suggestions guarantee 100% attention? No. Permanent partial attention is a given, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get closer to full attention. Focus less on the tool you are using and focus more on how to design your lesson. What worked in the classroom won’t make it online.

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Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author of the HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs. Palmer was also a guest on HMH's Learning Moments podcast, Shaping the Future: Future Skills for Fact-Checking Online Fakes.