Tips to Regain Attention in the Active Learning Classroom

How to re-establish attention after group work in a college class

When using active learning and engaging students in group discussions, the classroom can get noisy very quickly. For example, asking students to think about something and “turn to your neighbor and discuss for 2 minutes” is a beneficial Think-Pair-Share technique. However, we then need to refocus students’ attention back to a whole-class discussion in a timely manner.

If your class is small enough, it may be adequate to simply use your teacher voice and share, “let’s wrap up your discussion now.” But sometimes it takes more than a few minutes or you may have too many students in a large classroom.

Rather than yelling, what are some options to reestablish attention after group work or active learning experiences?

Use a Noticeable Cue

  • Display a countdown timer – many free options are available online, in slideshow software, or through YouTube. Make an announcement when there are 5 minutes left, and 1 minute left.
  • Play a specific sound – there are many audible yet calming chimes, bells, or gongs that you can bring to class as well as sounds or songs from your computer. Just make sure you’ve previewed the sound with students beforehand so as not to startle anyone.
  • Flick the lights on and off – even dimming the lights slightly can work well in a large setting. Again, try to make sure ahead of time that this would not startle or disrupt any students.
  • Sometimes a whisper can work wonders. Start at the front of the room and whisper, “If you can hear me, give the group next to you a Shh signal.”
  • Physically move to a different part of the room to direct their attention.
  • Let students know that that when the cue occurs, they should wrap up their sentence, not their paragraph.

Create a method ahead of time and share this with students

  • Let students know that when time is up, you will raise your hand. When they see you (or others) doing this, ask them to also raise their hand. Soon everyone in the room is raising their hand as the cue to gather back to a whole class discussion.
  • Ask students to face the front of the room again when you put up a slide that says, “Time is up, be ready to share your responses.”  Students will notice when they see others doing this.
  • Walk by each group and show them two fingers to signal that there are only two minutes left in the discussion.
  • If you utilize different spaces for longer discussions, designated a student from each group to monitor time and bring the group back.

Make it Fun

There are many more creative and fun ideas, especially from the K-12 setting, where songs, call-and-response, and physical gestures can be fun ways to refocus attention.

  • If it fits your personality or comfort level, you might consider a silly chant (“when I say quiet you say ‘yes prof'”) or sports/college cheer (Call: “Bear down,” Response: “Arizona!” Call: “bear down,” Response: “red and blue”) to refocus attention.
  • Tease that the last group to stop talking has to sing their response back to the class. Or, if the class takes too long, you will start singing (whatever brings the most dread).
  • Give mock awards to the groups who returned/refocused on time.

What about online classes?

When using small group and pair breakout discussions in our synchronous online classes, software programs do the work of bringing students back together for us. But these programs vary in the way that happens.

  • Test our your software program to see how it works. It can be jarring for students to be cut off mid-sentence and it can help for students to know if this is going to happen.
  • Let students know how much time they will have for breakout discussions ahead of time.
  • Send reminders and 5-minute or 1-minute warnings out to the breakout groups.

In the end, don’t worry too much if students do not stop speaking immediately. When someone is truly involved a good discussion, they don’t want to stop talking mid-sentence. Develop strategies, but recognize that if it takes a few minutes to regain attention, that may be a good thing.