It is common for a teacher to see students staring off into space when they should be paying attention to the teacher. In this post, we will look at perception and its role in a student’s ability to focus in the classroom.
Perception is the process by which a person gives meaning to what they choose to pay attention to. This can be the words in a book that a person sees or the conversation a person hears while speaking with a friend. A student’s perception can take in information from peers, the teacher, or other sources such as a cellphone in the classroom.
Perceptual selectivity is the process of picking a specific stimulus to focus on among several competitors. As teachers, we want our students to focus on learning and or instruction when they try to determine what to focus on perceptually.
To further complicate things, different students will focus on other things, even when they are focused and paying attention. For example, if the teacher is demonstrating how to use lab equipment, some students will focus on the equipment while others will be focused on the teacher’s words. Those who focus on the equipment do not focus on the teacher, while those who focus on the teacher’s words do not see how to use the equipment.
Once a student has focused on the stimulus that a teacher desires, the student enters the next stage, perceptual organization. At this stage, students attempt to make sense of what they are focusing on. This can be instructions from the teacher or an assignment as examples.
Several factors influence what a student will focus on, and these can be grouped into two broad categories: physical properties and dynamic properties.
Physical & Dynamic Properties
Physical properties include size because the larger something is, the easier it is to focus on it. This is why visuals need to be large so that the students can focus on them. A second physical property is the use of contrast or opposing characteristics such as light and dark or small and big. Contrast also relates to visuals. A third physical property is novelty. Nothing will get a student’s attention, like doing something unexpected.
Dynamic properties involve things that change or have an order to them. Two examples are motion and repetition. Motion is self-explanatory, but one example of this for a teacher is to move about the classroom while teaching. This may help some students to focus as the act of motion prevents the zoning out of focusing on a static object. Repetition is another prominent dynamic property. If instructions are repeated several times, it helps with retention.
The properties mentioned above are external factors. However, there are also several internal factors, such as response salience and response disposition.
Response Salience and Response Disposition
Response salience is the habit of focus on objects that relate to immediate needs and or wants. This means that a student needs to be persuaded that focusing on an assignment and or the teacher is meeting an immediate need or want. Often, a student will not pay attention because they do not see the need to. Therefore, teachers need to make sure that they can connect whatever they need to do in the classroom with some immediate relevancy.
Response disposition is a person’s habit of noticing familiar objects faster when compared to unfamiliar objects. Naturally, familiar objects will be things that a student has already learned and or be exposed to. In the classroom, sometimes students will hear what they think they hear when the reality is that they are replacing what the teacher said with something they are more familiar with. For example, it is common for students to mix up directions and or complete assignments incorrectly. Math assignments are often done incompletely because students use the wrong tools to complete a problem. The tool they select is often from ones they are already familiar with rather than the new one they just learned.
It is easy for a teacher to jump to conclusions when a student is not paying attention and focused. However, a teacher needs to familiar with the processes that people, including students, use when deciding what to focus on in the classroom.