4 Ways to Hold Students’ Attention and Beat the 9-Minute Itch

Keep Your Students' Attention Using These Tips
Online LearningStudent Success
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Author: Brandy Ramsey, Faculty Support and Analytics Specialist, College of Online and Adult Studies and Center for Innovation and Teaching Excellence & Adjunct Faculty, College of Business and Economics, Ashland University


Keeping your students’ attention can be a real challenge. They are pulled from one distraction to another. Social media is constantly at their fingertips. They participate in usual class routines in ways they may not feel comfortable with, such as using webcams or taking timed exams online. Their role may not just be as a student any longer. The list goes on and on.

We know student attention spans are waning. According to a study on educational videos by Cynthia J. Brame at Vanderbilt University, student engagement is highest when watching videos 6 minutes in length. Engagement dropped nearly 50% once videos stretched to 9 to 12 minutes, however. This “9 minute itch” is when attention spans officially start to run out. We see the diminished attention in our courses and experience it firsthand. Webcams click off five minutes into class, cell phones slide out in the middle of our lectures, and getting learners to talk in class can sometimes be a little tricky. Through the years, we’ve seen articles and research that talk about our student attention spans—how long a video should be or how long our lectures should be—but what do we do about this? How do we combat all the distractions and engage our learners in our classrooms, whether those classrooms are traditional face-to-face, virtual, hybrid, online, or some other modality?

Creating a learning environment with rich engagement opportunities is a great place to begin. Being deliberate in building this firm foundation begins with the 3 types of learner engagement:

  • Behavioral Engagement looks at how active and how much the learner participates in the class and perhaps in school in general. Is the learner logging in to class regularly? Are they attending on-time? Do they answer questions? Do they ask questions? Are they a leader in group work activities?
  • Cognitive Engagement looks more at the learner’s motivation and connection of their learning. Is the learner applying what they are learning? Are they making connections to new content, life, or other applications?
  • Emotional Engagement refers to the learner’s feelings regarding the connection to their learning and their learning environment. How does the learner feel about the content, the other students in the class, or even their instructor? Does the student feel their work in the class has value?

Utilizing these three learner engagement types as a foundation, how can we create an environment that increases student attention at all levels? Check out these 4 ways to beat the 9 minutes (or 6 or 10) it takes our learners to lose focus. These methods help keep them engaged with our content, their instructor, each other, and even themselves as they reflect on their learning.


1. Grab Students’ Attention by Setting Classroom Expectations Early

Beginning with week one, set the tone for the behavior of engagement in the classroom. There are a couple of great ways to encourage and promote this behavior right from the beginning of the semester.

  • Set the expectation that webcams and microphones should be on. Ask students to switch them on when they click into class. Learners may have a reason they can’t turn on a camera from time-to-time, but the expectation will be there and they can let you know then when they can’t.
  • Let your learners know how important knowing their names and getting to know them is to you. I struggle with learning my students’ names, so we create name table tents on day one. I make it a game to see how many I can get correct each class session until I get everyone correct.
  • Play an icebreaker game such as “Whodunnit” on day one to get to know each other. I take notes and try to use the things I’ve learned in questions, lessons, conversations, or parts of our projects throughout the semester. It helps to keep students’ attention by using facts about them to teach.
  • Make sure students know how to use the technology required for the class. We sometimes think that our students automatically know how to use technology. Usually, they know what they know and that’s it—we need to make sure they have the supports they need for the rest. If we want our students to use tools like Zoom or Kaltura, we need to make sure we provide them with help tools and tutorials as well.


2. Create Class Opportunities that Build Community

Building rapport between you and your learners and between a learner and their peers can provide a safe place for them to make mistakes and feel like they can ask real questions. This is a time when failure is not really failure—it’s a learning opportunity. Here are a few ways to build community in your classroom through learner engagement.

  • When learners walk into the traditional face-to-face classroom, greet them as they walk in. Do the same when virtual learners enter your online classroom. Greet your learners and start little conversations. Encourage them to talk with one another as well.
  • Set aside the first minute or two of class for community conversation. Use small talk to grab your students’ attention right at the start before diving into the material. How was the weekend? Have a “Crazy Question of the Day.” Facilitate an update on the sporting events, club events, social events, or theater productions happening on campus.
  • The virtual classroom provides opportunities to be creative. Set aside themed days like Bring Your Pet to Class Day, Wear a Wacky Shirt Day, or Bring Your Favorite Morning Beverage Day. I use the Bring Your Favorite Morning Beverage Day to collect data we can use for the project we do in class that day.


3. Increase Student Attention Through Collaborative Workspaces

Preparing our learners to be contributors to the workforce, their community, and even our world can be practiced by utilizing collaborative work spaces in our classrooms. Try these ideas for building collaborative workspaces.

  • Create teams and simulate a work environment: a department, a company, a committee, etc. These teams can be for a single class, a single project, or for the entire semester.
  • Breakout Rooms in the virtual environment can be used in so many creative ways to hold your students’ attention. One of my favorites is the Bring Your Favorite Morning Beverage Day I mentioned earlier. We begin the class in the main virtual classroom and go around and talk about the beverage we brought to class. Team members note the data from the discussion and then we split into breakout groups. Teams take this raw data and make decisions as to how to present it. They create a spreadsheet and a short presentation, and then come back to the main room to present their data. I bounce into each breakout room, check their progress, make suggestions as needed, and keep the teams on track. They only have 20 minutes to create their team spreadsheets so they have to work quickly. It’s a fun, fast-paced class and we get to see several different ways the same data can be presented.
  • Some ideas for group activities are Think-Pair-Share, Jigsaw, or giving groups a list of questions to work through. Students can complete them virtually in breakout rooms and face-to-face in the traditional classroom.
  • The flipped classroom is another way to create a collaborative work environment during your class time. Learners can listen to the lecture or do the course reading before coming to class. This allows them to be prepared for class projects and application assignments during class time. Current events could also be used to hold students’ attention as you make connections to their learning during class time. I use my textbook’s online resources to prepare for applying those concepts to a semester-long project that has future real-world application in both personal and professional scenarios. This provides opportunities for learners to make those deeper connections with their learning.
  • Class discussions can be enhanced with tools such as Google Docs or Forms, Kahoot, or Poll Questions. Create a Google Doc and have learners add to the document either before class or during class as a class activity. Use Forms to analyze learner understanding and then share the data to lead live discussion.
  • Assigning group activities as low-stakes assignments is also a great way to incentivize learners to work together and earn some points while they’re at it.


4. Plan Out How You’ll Keep Students’ Attention Each Class Session

Strategizing and planning each class session can help create engaged learners in unique and fun ways. Transitioning from lecture to activities within the class session can be effective when planned well. These are just a few ideas that help to create an engaging learning environment.

  • Utilize the virtual classroom for your teaching advantage. Chat can be used to pose questions and stimulate side conversations. Encourage learners to use the non-verbal feedback options for yes/no responses to questions, thumbs up/down to confirm they are good to move on to the next concept, or the slow down/speed up feedback if they are feeling confused or just ready to move on. Polling allows for quick questions to check for understanding or to pose a discussion topic. Asking a learner to share their screen and show their work to the class can also be a great engagement tool.
  • When lecturing or creating a video, build in an activity or quiz. Consider adopting a 9-2 philosophy to maximize student attention. For every 9 minutes of video or lecture, create 2 minutes of activities.
  • Remember to pause after a question is posed. This is particularly important when your class is virtual. Provide 5-7 seconds minimum for learners to type into the chat, get their microphone turned back on, or really process a thoughtful answer to the question posed.
  • End-of-class activities are a great way to wrap up for the day. Try asking students to write an “Exit Ticket” where they take note of one takeaway from class that day, one question they still have, a summary of the day, or whatever is important for that class period. Another activity could be a “Note Share” where learners spend the last two minutes sharing and comparing their notes. They can pick up something they may have missed, confirm an idea or concept, or even get reassurance that they covered all of the important topics from the day.

What Students Think

A couple of semesters ago, I polled the learners in my classes about their learning. What did they like? What didn’t they like? Do they have any advice to give me? I wanted to know how they were feeling about their learning. I also wanted to know if they felt like they were making any connections to the materials and concepts and if the way our class was designed was helpful in achieving those learning connections. Here’s what they told me:

  • “Keep making us turn our cameras on when we are virtual. Continue to call our names and make us answer questions. It helps us to feel connected to our classmates and also to you. It also makes us pay attention because we never know when we will be called to answer a question or share our work with the class.”
  • “We like the breakout rooms so we can work on projects and assignments with our classmates. It’s nice to work together and have each other to ask questions and get support from one another. It’s also easier to talk in the smaller groups and work through the problems together.”
  • “Keep the ‘Exit Tickets.’ They help us pay better attention in class.”
  • “Don’t forget about us and who we are. We like the personal conversation and connection to our ‘future selves.’ We didn’t realize how this class would connect to so many professions and to so many things we will be doing in the future.”

Utilizing these 4 ways to help learners beat the 9-minute itch and stay focused in class can help to build a firm foundation for a class full of engaged learners.


Looking for more strategies on how to keep student engagement high in your online course? Watch the recording from our Empowered Educator webinar.