Five keys to learning: Grabbing students’ attention

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Image: iStock

Continuing his five-part series, Matt Bromley is dissecting his five key aspects of engaging and effective lessons. Key number three is grabbing your students’ attention. He offers some practical advice

This is the fourth of five articles in which I am exploring five principles of well-planned lessons. In part one, I outlined the five principles (A design for learning: The five lesson keys, SecEd, January 28, 2016: In short, these are:

  1. Well-planned lessons connect the learning in three ways: they articulate a clear learning goal that students understand, they articulate a clear purpose for the learning, and they ensure that students’ starting points are identified through pre-tests (See Five keys to learning: Making connections, SecEd, February 5, 2016:
  2. Well-planned lessons personalise the learning by ensuring that the learning is tailored to meet individual needs and to match individual skills, interests, and styles; and by ensuring that this diagnostic data about students’ starting points and misconceptions (both that gathered from pre-tests and that gleaned from on-going assessments) is used to inform the way the learning is planned (Five keys to learning: Personalise the learning, SecEd, February 25, 2016:
  3. Well-planned lessons grab students’ attentions by ensuring that learning activities grab and maintain students’ attentions from the very beginning by using sensory “hooks” and by ensuring that the learning is appropriately paced, and activities are appropriately varied and challenging.
  4. Well-planned lessons teach less so that students learn more by covering a smaller amount of curriculum content but in far greater depth and detail – and from a range of different perspectives – than they would be able to achieve if they attempted to “get through” more content.
  5. Well-planned lessons make time for students to reflect by providing students with regular opportunities to revisit their progress, to revise their thinking and to redraft their work, acting on the formative feedback they receive from teacher, peer and self-assessment.

In this article, we will consider the third principle: how to “grab students’ attention”...

Key 3: Grab students’ attention

Students need self-discipline, self-direction, and the ability to delay their gratification in order to be successful in school and yet many students are unwilling to work hard. Students typically misunderstand that their role is to develop their understanding, not merely acquire (and then regurgitate) the information that teachers provide them with. Often, teachers try to overcome this by issuing extrinsic rewards such as praise, prizes, and privileges, or indeed extrinsic sanctions such as low grades and punishments.

But extrinsic rewards and sanctions don’t work very well, or at least not for very long – the best solution is to create intrinsic motivation, to make what you’re teaching worth learning, or as Bruner (1960) said: “The best way to create interest in a subject is to render it worth knowing, which means to make the knowledge gained usable in one’s thinking beyond the situation in which learning has occurred.”

So how do we make something worth knowing? In other words, how do we grab students’ attention?
The following list, which I have paraphrased and adapted from Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe, articulates five ways of piquing students’ intellectual interest:

  1. Instant immersion in questions, problems, challenges, situations, or stories that require students’ wits, not just knowledge.
  2. Thought provocations. Anomalies, weird facts, counter-intuitive events or ideas, and mysteries that appeal to the gut, making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.
  3. Experiential shocks. This type of activity can be characterised as an intellectual Outward Bound experience in which students have to confront feelings, obstacles, and problems personally and as a group to accomplish a task.
  4. Personal connection. Students often become more engaged when given opportunities to make a personal connection to the topic or to pursue a matter of interest.
  5. Differing points of view or multiple perspectives on an issue. A deliberate shift of perspective can nudge students out of their comfort zone to stimulate wonderment and deeper thinking.

Let’s take a look at the first method – immersion in questions, problems and challenges – in more detail...
Immersion in questions

Once students are made aware of the learning goals and the purpose of the scheme, they need to be “hooked” – we need to grab their attention from the very first moment. As a starting point, it is helpful for the teacher to ask herself the following questions:

  • In what experiences, problems, and issues can I immerse my students in order to make the big ideas and questions seem instantly interesting, concrete, and of importance?
  • What approaches to this material will generate the most interest?
  • What are the most off-putting features of typical schooling that minimise risk-taking, imagination, and the courage to question, and how can these be undone or avoided here?

These questions help improve our ability to engage students’ thinking, curiosity, and motivation. School work is sometimes unnecessarily dull, especially when it involves mind-numbing worksheets or excessive passive listening, all divorced from interesting problems and from realistic and worthy challenges. Organising our schemes of work around thought-provoking ideas, questions and challenging problems, however, is an effective way of provoking and sustaining our students’ engagement.

One issue with doing this is knowing how to write big questions that provoke thinking. First, we should be clear about what questions really matter and what inquiries will help students to understand the big ideas we’re teaching. Second, when crafting resources and activities, we should edit, modify, and adapt the questions in order to ensure they serve as useful bridges between student and adult thinking and are of interest to all students.

Just plucking a question out of the air at the start of a scheme of work may not generate interest or lead toward any helpful understanding – time must be spent writing effective questions. Indeed, most of the time you spend planning should be spent on inventing questions.

If your questions are not well thought through, students may not know enough (or be motivated enough) about the issues in order to see the need or value in addressing such questions.

That is not to say that great questions cannot arise naturally out of tasks and discussions. Sometimes, in fact, the best questions (or problems to solve) relate to particular activities such as role-plays and case studies. However, most of the time, big questions require thought.

Now let’s also look at the second method, thought provocations...

Thought provocations

Some of the most engaging and effective schemes of work are organised around controversial or opposing arguments. It might be that you start your scheme with an anomaly. A mystery is always a good “hook” for provoking thinking, especially when the answers raise other big questions. An element of mystery is central to awakening and developing students’ powers of inquiry and the understanding that their role is to inquire into what is learned.

Make it stick

Finally, in a previous article I explained ways of making information stick (Best laid (lesson) plans, SecEd, June 2014: and three of the suggestions I shared then are also relevant here when looking at ways of “hooking” students: namely, make it tangible, make it clear, and make it satisfying. Allow me to paraphrase from that earlier article...

Make it tangible

One way to make information tangible is to use metaphor. Metaphor is good at making ideas stick because it brings ideas to life, it draws connections between new knowledge and existing knowledge. For example, if you are trying to describe how electricity flows through a material, you’ll need to explain the structure of atoms.

You might use a metaphor which describes atoms as “nature’s building blocks” to help students understand an atom’s function. You will then need to explain how each atom is comprised of protons, which are positively charged, neutrons, which have no charge, and electrons, which are negatively charged.

Then you would need to explain that, together, the protons and neutrons form the “nucleus” of the atom, and that the electrons travel around this nucleus. You might then use a metaphor which compares this “orbit” to the way the earth travels around the sun.

In each case, you are relating new information which students are unlikely to be able to process and therefore retain, with existing information (or prior knowledge) in order to help them imagine it, process it and retain it.

Make it clear

One way to make information clear is to ensure your lesson planning maximises your students’ capacity for learning: you can review your schemes of work to make sure they follow the inverted pyramid structure. In other words, you could make sure each of the lessons in your scheme clearly articulates its “lead”.

The cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham argues that lesson plans should be focused on what students will think about rather than what they will do. And, although we are not naturally good thinkers, we do enjoy problem-solving – so you should frame your key messages (or “lead”) around a problem to be solved or an enquiry to be investigated and answered.

First, decide what the vital “take-away” messages are – rather than what will merely add hue and texture – then concentrate on writing questions rather than creating fun activities. Try to write a “big question” which forms the basis for the lesson. Alternatively, you could pose a hypothesis to be proven or disproven.

Make it satisfying

One way to make information satisfying is to pique students’ curiosity. Teachers tend to focus on imparting facts, but unless students know why those facts are important they are unlikely to retain them. Therefore, when reviewing your schemes of work, make sure that before teaching your students the facts, you take time to pique their curiosity and make them realise why they need those facts.

The secret to convincing students that they need the information you intend to teach them, according to Professor George Loewenstein, is to start by highlighting the knowledge they are missing. Another technique is to start a lesson by asking students to make a prediction.

Next time

Next time we will look at key principle 4 – teach less so that students learn more – and key principle 5 – make time for students to reflect.

Previous articles

To read previous articles in this series, as well as Matt Bromley’s other best practice articles for SecEd, go to The final article in this series will publish on March 10.


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