Six Effective Methods to Engage Students’ Interest

In this article, we will discuss findings from neuroscience that shed light on how the brain’s attention system works. Understanding this process can help teachers employ specific techniques to capture students’ attention when introducing new topics.

The brain has evolved to prioritize survival. Every second, millions of sensory information bits from the eyes, ears, internal organs, skin, and muscles flow to the brain’s attention gate, but only about 1 percent enters consciousness. The reticular activating system (RAS) is responsible for determining what gets in and what the brain focuses on. This neural network, located in the lower brain stem, acts as the gateway for all sensory input. Remarkably, the RAS is essentially the same in humans, cats, dogs, and even children.

In the wild, an attention system that gives priority to unexpected, changing, and unfamiliar things is beneficial for survival. This is the key principle behind the RAS attention gate: it prioritizes anything that is perceived as a potential threat. However, in the absence of danger, attention is drawn to any changes in an organism’s environment.

CAPTURING ATTENTION IN THE CLASSROOM

While survival in the wild is not a primary concern for most humans today, the RAS still responds to perceived threats and changes. If students feel physically and psychologically unsafe in their school or classroom, they are less likely to focus their attention on the lesson. On the other hand, when there is no perceived threat, our brains are particularly receptive to novelty, curiosity, and the unexpected.

In school, students’ brains are always attentive, although not always to the topics being taught. When students are not engaged with a lesson or textbook, the RAS prioritizes other visually and emotionally stimulating elements, diverting attention away from the teacher’s voice or the words on the page.

To take advantage of the brain’s selectivity, here are six practical and proven strategies to capture attention when introducing a new unit or lesson.

1. Surprise students

Since the brain is naturally drawn to novelty, doing something unusual or unexpected can pique curiosity and activate the RAS attention filter.

Examples: Wear a unique outfit, bring in a peculiar object, or play a song when students enter the room. This helps promote curiosity and focus. Inform students that there is a connection between your attire, the object, or the song lyrics and the upcoming lesson. Challenge them to guess what it may be.

For instance, at the beginning of a unit on negative numbers or the past tense in language, a teacher can walk backward into the room and ask students to guess why.

2. Present unusual facts, anomalies, or unexpected events

The brain is wired to recognize patterns. Constructing patterns allows humans to make sense of the world. However, when an established or expected pattern is disrupted, the brain becomes immediately alert and engaged.

Example: A science teacher demonstrates by blowing up a balloon, then piercing one end with a sharpened wooden cooking skewer. To the students’ amazement, the skewer goes through the opposite side of the balloon without popping it. This captivating and unexpected event keeps students transfixed and eager to see the demonstration again!

3. Invite students to make predictions

The ability to make accurate predictions is essential for survival, and the brain rewards successful predictions by releasing dopamine, a pleasure-inducing chemical. Teachers can provide opportunities for students to predict the relationship between curious sensory inputs or other forms of novelty and the upcoming lesson. When students are encouraged to make predictions, they actively seek information to confirm their guesses and remain attentive as their brains strive to ascertain their correctness.

Examples: In a first-grade science lesson, ask the children to predict which objects will float or sink in a tub of water. In a high school psychology class, challenge students to predict the results of a schoolwide student survey. In both cases, students become engaged and eager to find out if their predictions were accurate.

4. Pose a thought-provoking (hook) question

A compelling question can be an “itch” in students’ brains that they are eager to scratch.

Can what you eat prevent zits? Does a fart contain DNA? Is aging a disease? What superpower would you want?

The best hook questions are open-ended. They aim to stimulate thinking, ignite discussions, and open the door to further exploration. Allow students a reasonable amount of quiet thinking time before they respond. Encourage them to jot down their thoughts or engage in a think-pair-share activity with a classmate. This personal engagement will make learners more attentive to your subsequent teaching on the related topic.

5. Reference a current event or issue relevant to students

Students often have opinions on current events or controversial issues within their school, town, state, etc. These opinions can serve as powerful tools to spark engagement.

Example: In a unit on persuasive writing, a middle school teacher shares a newspaper article about a school board proposal in another district that suggests implementing student uniforms. Students then discuss the pros and cons of the proposal, state their own position, and even switch sides to better understand different perspectives and develop counterarguments. This discussion serves as an introductory activity for the unit on persuasion.

6. Use humor

Humor reliably boosts dopamine levels and can be an excellent attention hook.

Example: A sixth-grade math teacher begins a unit on ratios and proportions by presenting humorous caricatures of celebrities. She asks the students to describe what makes the pictures funny, and they notice exaggerated physical features (e.g., eyes, nose, ears, head) of the characters. The teacher then shows Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man to illustrate idealized proportions of the human body.

Hook and Hold Attention

We recommend rotating attention-getting techniques to avoid predictability. The goal of employing the above techniques is not just to capture immediate attention but also to sustain it over time. There are various ways to build upon initial attention using active-learning strategies, such as authentic tasks and projects, inquiry-oriented instruction, cooperative learning, Socratic seminars, simulations and role-plays, design thinking (e.g., incorporating makerspaces for tangible product creation), and allowing students appropriate options for voice and choice in assignments and performance tasks.

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