You wouldn’t know it by my blog, but I am still reading Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology by Michelle D. Miller as part of a campus reading group. The chapters have gotten a little more dense recently–with a lot of information. I may have to re-read a number of these chapters at some point.
Chapter four deals mainly with the concept of attention and analyzing how it relates to learning. One of the main takeaways for me was the idea that increased repetition and practice doesn’t increase our bank of attention to devote to a particular task, but, rather that increased practice shrinks the costs. Meaning, we all have a finite amount of attention–and with increased practice, we are better able to filter out the “noise” and hone in on what’s important and relevant, which results in improved performance. An interesting idea as it relates to directing students’ attention. And I could definitely relate to how when we are really focused on an engaging task, time seems to slip by unnoticed–because we’re ignoring the passage of time since we perceive it as yet another distraction.
Miller also mentions how easily our attention can be diverted by things like the “cocktail party effect”–which is when in a room full of people, we can still hear our name being mentioned amid all the background noise. While something like this may seem irrelevant to a classroom or an online course environment, I still think it characterizes how difficult it can be to not only capture a student’s attention, but to hold it–especially while competing with all the distractions in our age of portable devices. Another idea I found worth noting: Miller suggests that measures taken to assist students with ADHD will also benefit students without diagnosed attention problems.
As usual, Miller offers some strategies for keeping students’ attention in an online course environment. For longer text passages, she suggests interspersing some active response questions throughout to help keep students focused. Another technique she recommends is “branching” or “story-line” questions (which made me think of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books) to help keep students engaged. And while it may be a challenge in a truly online environment, Miller also recommends scheduled synchronous activities that encourage student participation.
Miller adds that the online environment can more easily lend itself to promoting mastery of a topic through the automaticity of auto-grading–which offers multiple attempts at low-stakes assessment opportunities that offer immediate feedback. Plus, it offers instructors a way to track a student’s progress and identify areas where the student is having trouble.
Miller also touches on the concept of cognitive load, and notes that instructors can’t really do much to influence intrinsic and germane loads, but they can help reduce extraneous load by attempting to keep all relevant information in one place as much as possible so students don’t have to hunt around for it. Miller also suggests that ensuring the technology works properly can help minimize that extraneous cognitive load and help keep students focused.