Use these neat tricks to get students focused and their learning cogs turning

A high school student daydreaming in class

Source: © Phil Boorman/Getty Images

Get your students back in the learning zone by regularly checking they’re listening

I’m very lucky in that I get to observe a lot of lessons, and so I often see the same scenarios play out. For example, in a lesson on energy changes in reactions, the teacher asks a student (let’s call him Simon) about the temperature change in an endothermic reaction. He says he doesn’t know so the teacher moves on to the next student, who gets it right.

When I first started observing, I didn’t have much to say about a scenario like this: the teacher’s question was good, the level of challenge was fine, the student just didn’t know. Recently, however, I’ve become a bit wiser to a hidden element in this exchange that lurks just below the surface.

Everything we do is worthless if students aren’t paying attention to it

Now, when I am observing a scenario like this, I quietly go up to Simon and enquire what the teacher just asked him. He says he doesn’t know. The point here is that when a student doesn’t answer a question, it could be that they genuinely don’t know the answer. If that’s the case, the teacher needs to then take some key steps (like reteaching). However, it could be that the student doesn’t know because they weren’t listening. Not maliciously, not nefariously – they just weren’t listening. They were gazing out the window, or copying some notes, or answering a different question, or reading something else on the board. Or they had just zoned out. Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t listening.

Simply put, if students aren’t listening or paying attention, they won’t learn the content. Time and again, I find that students are falling behind, missing content and getting things wrong – not because the teaching isn’t clear or is badly sequenced but because the students aren’t listening. We need to work hard to make sure they are paying attention all the time. Our explanations, our corrections, our questions, our feedback – everything we do is worthless if students aren’t paying attention to it.

Redirecting attention

There are a great many ways we can foster a culture of listening in the classroom. One simple modification for when a student says they don’t know is to ask them to repeat the question back to you. This is a very neat trick. If the student can repeat the question, you know they’ve been listening – they just don’t know the answer. If they can’t repeat it, you can be sure they haven’t been listening.

When another student has given the correct answer, return to the first student immediately and ask them to repeat this answer. Or you could bide your time and wait a few minutes before returning to the original student to check they are still paying attention. You could also modify the question. For example, if you asked about an endothermic reaction the first time (when they didn’t know), go back to them later asking about an exothermic one.

If, on the other hand, the student can’t repeat the question back to you, you know they weren’t listening and might say something like, ‘That’s really disappointing. You aren’t going to learn if you aren’t listening. I’m going to come back to you later – make sure you can tell me what I or others have been saying. If you can’t, then we might need to talk it through at lunch break so I can help you pay better attention in class.’

An approach like this is inspired by Doug Lemov’s no opt out strategy, designed to increase the number of students participating, listening and paying attention in your classroom (often called ratio techniques). These techniques require practice and a conscious effort. But they’re worth it, because if students aren’t listening, they aren’t learning.

Adam Boxer