In my new job I will have to teach for 70 minutes in a row. I have experienced this before and I remember colleagues responding saying: I can’t make students work for 70 minutes!
That’s why you should have a wide variety of activities in your lesson. Variation is key!
Age as a rule
Now I won’t take any credit for this personally as it wasn’t my idea, but some time ago a colleague (I honestly forgot who…) mentioned that age can be a good way of measuring the time a student can concentrate.
In other words, if you want to talk for 20 minutes in front of a group of 20 year old students, that should work fine.
However, if you talk for 20 minutes for a group of 12 year olds, that could be a problem. 12 Minutes is the limit for them.
Obviously this is by no means a definite law or rule. Some kids can concentrate for a longer period of time with ease while others cannot concentrate at all. (The ‘there-flies-a-bird Syndrome’)
Yet, as a general guideline, this rule works quite well. In my case, I only teach 13-15 year old students so the length of any stage of a lesson should not last more than 13-15 minutes.
Three tricks to improve focus of students
So, what can you do to improve focus after you set a task for students? Scaffolding is important; this makes sure that students receive tasks suitable for their age and level as well as a clear structure for the given task. Here are a few more tricks that work really well for me:
- Show a timer
Whenever I want my students to work alone or together on a task, I will tell them the amount of time they have to work on the assignment.
To stress this a little more, I will show a countdown timer on screen, so students have a visual confirmation of the amount of time they have left.
It might sound silly, but it works like a charm!
- Make sure students know what to do next
It happens to the best of us: you planned a task and was sure students would be working on it for at least the amount of time you gave them, say, 15 minutes.
After eight minutes, one student raises her hand and mentions she’s finished.
Within three minutes, five more students are finished.
At that point “help out your neighbor” doesn’t quite work anymore.
So, always make sure you have some extra work or the next task ready for those unexpected moments you underestimated your students.
- Check for understanding
Whenever you give instruction for a task, ask if students understand what they should do now. Before I did this, I would quite often hear the excuses “I didn’t know what to do” when I had actually mentioned it and written it down for all to see.
However, when you ask “does everyone understand what to do?” and you get no response, students cannot use this argument anymore as they should have responded earlier. This makes them more responsible for their own learning process.
Furthermore, I would sometimes get the response that a couple of students actually don’t know what to do, despite my best efforts. This might be because I my instruction was too fast (never happens…) or not detailed enough.
I found finishing every task with this simple question to be a great way of allowing for more responsibility for students as well as a check for myself to see if indeed everything I said made sense.
Focus and concentration can be a tricky thing for a teenager, especially when they have to focus on a task they deem ‘uninteresting’ or ‘boring’. I hope these tricks will help you to increase focus and engagement in your lesson!
Do you have more ideas? Let me know!