Attention Matters! A Freestanding Module for Teaching About Attention and Multitasking

Award Winner: 
2015 Sloan-C Effective Practice Award
Student-Generated Content
Author Information
Michelle Miller, John Doherty, and J. Richard McDonald
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Northern Arizona University
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Rhizome Learn LLC
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

We created this learning resource to address growing concerns about distraction and learning. With mobile computing devices such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets now making their way into so many parts of daily life, the pull of electronic distractions grows stronger all the time. Games, social networking, shopping, media and more are now just a few clicks away, presenting constant temptations to students in online as well as face to face learning settings. Especially in online courses, policing device use is of limited utility in changing student behavior. An alternative tactic is to educate students about how attention works and the impact of distraction on learning. Attention Matters uses interactive demonstrations that show students - rather than just telling them - how limited attention is. Through discussion prompts, it also sets the stage for students to articulate what they are learning and to offer advice to one another. Lastly, self-quizzes, surveys and a summative assessment push them to build a base of knowledge about attention. Through this module, instructors will be able to 1) educate students about how attention works, especially in academic contexts, and 2) motivate them to make better choices about multitasking.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Attention Matters is an online learning module designed to take students about one hour to complete. It consists of four units, which students complete in sequence, starting with a welcome unit with two preassessments, one that gauges attitudes toward attention and another that surveys students on their typical multitasking behaviors, such as texting in class or watching videos while working. Units 2 and 3 address common misconceptions about attention and risks of multitasking via links to brief online video clips and interactive demonstrations, followed by short text explanations, discussions and self-quizzing. The final unit prompts students to reflect on their own plans for managing attention in the future, culminating in a self-reflective writing assignment.

We have created a shareable SCORM format version of Attention Matters as well as a BB Learn archive. , There is also a version of the module consisting of unbundled course resources such as text content, links and assessments that instructors can use within their own courses, either as a complement to other course material, extra credit activity, or required assignment. Attention Matters is firmly grounded in current research literature within cognitive psychology, but is also designed to be usable by instructors without a specialized background in this field.

Learning outcomes for the different components of Attention Matters are as follows:

Unit 1: What Do You Know About Attention?

Students will be able to
• Explain the relationship between memory and attention
• Describe major characteristics of human attention, especially limitations in how much we can pay attention to at once
• Explain what change blindness and inattentional blindness tell us about attention
• Correctly reject the idea that gender, experience, intelligence and other personal characteristics exempt certain people from attentional limitations
• Describe distractions that can come from external as well as internal sources
• Correctly reject the idea that “learning by osmosis” happens from passive exposure to information

Unit 2: What Happens When We Overload Attention?

Students will be able to
• Predict negative effects that are likely to happen when multitasking
• Use quizzing and self-testing to improve results from study time
• Use the concept of interleaving to improve results from study time
• Avoid re-reading as a study technique

• Explain how cell phone use affects important processes such as driving and studying
• Explain how using a laptop in class can affect other students as well as oneself
• Use long-term goals to improve results from study time

Unit 3: What’s Your Plan for Managing Attention?

Students will be able to
• Use concepts from behavior change research to create effective plans for managing attention
• Identify areas where they can improve future behavior to minimize distraction
• Successfully negotiate with other students and instructors to address other students’ distracting behavior in class
Complete a substantive self-reflection on attention and multitasking in their own lives

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

Attention Matters has generated high levels of faculty interest in using the module. Nineteen individuals from the United States and Australia have requested the materials, and the Attention Matters materials have been downloaded 347 times from the co-creator’s web site.

Given that Attention Matters has just become available to instructors within the last two months, we do not yet have extensive assessment data on student impacts. However, early indications are that the two assessments developed as part of the project – the Attention Myths Acceptance scale and the Multitasking Behaviors Inventory – have promise as valid, reliable measures. A pilot survey conducted with a worldwide community sample of adults on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk revealed high levels of inter-item reliability for the Attention Myths Acceptance Scale (Cronbach’s alpha = .803). Furthermore, there is a strong predictive relationship between scores on the Attention Myths Acceptance scale and self-reported multitasking behaviors, Pearson’s correlation = .604. This suggests, first, that the Attention Myths Acceptance Scale we use as one of our assessments is a valid indicator of real-world behaviors, and that acceptance of common misconceptions about attention and memory predicts the likelihood of engaging in potentially harmful multitasking behaviors.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

Scale: The module can be used with minimal investment of additional faculty time or technical support, utilizing existing LMS features. It is designed to be used by faculty across disciplines and institutions, in a wide variety of different courses, or outside a course as a freestanding learning activity supporting student success.

Learning: The module addresses one of the commonest threats to learning, poor management of cognitive resources by students. It is particularly well aligned to the challenges of online learning, given that online settings are rife with distractions such as messaging, social media, news and shopping sites. It gives students tools and strategies for maximizing their own learning, grounded in well-established theories of human cognition.

Faculty Satisfaction: The module provides faculty with a ready way to address one of the commonest frustrations of contemporary teaching, student inattention and lack of engagement with learning activities. The evidence-based approach of Attention Matters has a high degree of faculty appeal, and the module is designed to require minimal setup and work to execute.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

The module runs within Blackboard Learn and can be adapted into other LMSs via our freely available SCORM package.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

There is no cash outlay required to implement Attention Matters in a course. The faculty time cost to set up and execute the module within one moderate-sized class is approximately 4-12 hours.

References, supporting documents: 

Supporting documents include a step by step overview of content and learning activities within the module and a detailed faculty guide. We have linked an article about this project that appeared in Inside Higher Ed in December 2014.


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Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Michelle Miller
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Effective Practice Contact 2: 
John Doherty
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Effective Practice Contact 3: 
J. Richard McDonald
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