The evolution of a presentation: How to maximise students attention in online lessons

I was asked to deliver some CPD on planning for the online lesson environment. It was about how best to direct a student’s attention to the relevant areas. I made this powerpoint that illustrates the ideas with a few examples based on an old SoW I had for Alevel physics. 

This was my starting point. An old presentation from my A level physics SoW

This blog gives a little run down on the various factors that come into play in all lessons, but are made more challenging in the online environment. At the bottom are my slides if you want them for any department CPD you might want to run based on this. Have I mentioned I can always help with your CPD? There is a CPD page on my blog with details.

Why is attention important?

This may be stating the obvious but the working memory model, and other accepted models of memory, all stipulate the importance of attention in memory formation. After all, you can’t learn something if you are not paying attention. Anyone who has walked past a sixth former studying with headphones on will recognise that humans have a habit of overestimating their ability to pay attention. As teachers we do lots of things to try to increase our students’ attention on the task, from insisting on a certain environment, to gestures and modulations of voice. 

We are in an uphill battle though. You may not realise, but the mind is very good at not paying attention and forgetting. It has to be so it can handle all the information it is inundated with every second. 

There are a number of well established cognitive effects that hinder learning. These are the result primarily of Cognitive Load Theory and other cognitive psychology ideas. Whilst considering attention we need to also consider the cognitive load of the students, particularly in an online classroom. Here are a few of the key ones pertinent to teaching in particular. 

The Split Attention Effect: Occurs when students have to refer to two different sources of information simultaneously when learning something. This creates an extra load on their brain as switching between tasks takes time, effort and energy. It is best thought of as an act of juggling, where each item of information represents one ball. Ask a novice juggler to use too many balls and inevitably some will get dropped. Likewise, a student trying to attend to multiple sources of information and they will unlikely be unable to process all of it.

The redundancy effect: Is part of Cognitive Load Theory and states that giving students irrelevant information whilst they are learning something will clog up their working memory. This means students may remember the wrong stuff, not the parts of the information you actually want them to.

Modality effect: Refers to a cognitive load learning effect which occurs when a mixed mode (partly visual and partly auditory) presentation of information is more effective than when the same information is presented in a single mode (either visual or auditory alone). This is often referred to as dual coding.

Does Cog Sci rule all?

It’s easy to think that all decisions should be guided by Cog Sci. Unfortunately, that is not reality. In reality our communal presentations need to allow non-specialists to teach. We often want to put all the pertinent information into the slides so we can ensure all students get the best explanations possible. This increases the amount of text and potential of cognitive overload on the students. While this is not desirable it is much better than the alternative, a beautifully balanced presentation delivered by a teacher who does not provide the most effective explanation. So we make a pragmatic choice to partially sacrifice the cognitive load and increase the safety net for our non-specialists. As an aside, this shows the importance of subject expertise and why this should be prioritised in department and personal CPD. 

Signaling attention in the normal classroom environment

Let’s be frank, good resource design aides learning in all situations. However, in the normal classroom environment the teacher has a number of strategies they can use to direct attention to a particular chunk of information. This provides the experienced teacher with a certain capacity to overcome a poorly designed slide or task. Simple things like pointing and touching the relevant point are hugely valuable. The flesh and blood teacher has another huge advantage, they can gauge the attention of their students in real time. The virtual remote teacher experiences a sea of black rectangles and has to do their best to quell the sense that those on the other side of the webcam are in fact playing fortnite.

What can we do in the online classroom?

We have to pre-plan all our slides to ensure attention is maximised. Like I said previously this is preferential in normal lessons (managing the cognitive load innit!), but in the online classroom we have very few of the normal backup tools we use face to face. So when planning our slides we need to remember that we need to carefully consider where our students need to be focusing. The advice often given is to use animations to reveal part of the information step by step. This works well but teachers can misinterpret this and just have the text come up in a way that doesn’t direct the attention appropriately.

Visualisers: The ultimate cheat sheet.

If you want an easy way to avoid these things without having to design pretty presentations then a visualiser is the way to go. You can either live draw diagrams (therefore drawing attention to each stage as the diagram is constructed) or print a diagram and label it in realtime. This is the low effort high impact strategy for those teachers who have an advanced understanding of their subject. For newer teachers or teachers delivering out of specialism then the effort of building the presentation in advance gives them a scaffold to ensure their explanation is accurate and concise. 

The evolution of a better presentation. 

Below you can download my CPD presentation. In the notes are the salient points to understand what is going on. Although we only have a few weeks of remote teaching left in the UK (fingers crossed) these ideas are pertinent in normal lessons as well. Hope it helps.

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