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I'll be starting my 4-th year of post-secondary education, in a few weeks, and during my first 3 years, I've had problems with attentiveness. My latest problem was last year, where I don't think I've been able to follow a single lecture during more than 30 minutes out of the 2 to 4 hours (There is one break during the 4 hours lectures).

I don't think it's my teacher's fault because it has always been an issue with me and, for instance this year, even though many students such as myself had problems with attendance and attentiveness, about 25% of the students felt the lectures were satisfying and managed to follow most of them.

It might be due to the fact that the courses are not always, the one I would like to attend, but I won't be able to chose until my 5-th year so this option won't work for me.

The thing is I've managed to fall through the cracks so far by simply working by myself with the textbooks we were given but I now realise it was a mistake, first of all because several times the textbooks we've been given were either obsolete or not related at all to the knowledge and skills we were actually expected to get and a few times we were simply not given anything besides the lectures.

I usually get enough sleep, 8 to 10 hours. I also play sports 3-4 hours a week.

Second of all I'm pretty sure my understanding of the course was pretty much limited to me getting good grades on the tests but not actually understanding the essence of the courses. I'm supposed to be an engineer in two years and I feel like all I know is how to get good grades but without proper actual engineering skills, and I'm pretty sure it's mostly due to me not having the right approach on lectures.

Basically, I would like to know if someone had the same problem and what approach they took or if anyone has pieces of advice or tricks to improve attentiveness during lectures ?

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    You didn't mention if you do any regular physical exercise, like playing sports. Universities typically have excellent opportunities for that. Something like badminton, perhaps. You can easily find many articles on the subject which suggest that regular exercise has a positive mental effect. – Andrew Morton Aug 25 '16 at 20:52
  • This sounds like the physiological phenomena associated with the Third Barrier to Study. If you haven't encountered Study Technology before, I highly recommend you look into it. It applies at any level of study. – Wildcard Aug 25 '16 at 23:55
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    I disagree with the close voters: this is one undergraduate question that could be generalized to graduate studies also (see also this meta discussion: meta.academia.stackexchange.com/q/3300/20058). Voted to reopen. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 26 '16 at 7:42
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    I agree with @MassimoOrtolano, I don't exactly see what makes this question undergraduate specific. Furthermore I guess it could be argue that I'm an undergraduate student, but in France I think the academia is extremely different than in other countries. Considering, i'm in my 4-th year of study in a "Grande Ecole", it's the equivalent to the first year of study of a Master's Degree, which is why I can do my 5-th year of study in a foreign university to get an MSc at the end of it. If I came from a university I would have a "License" (BSc) even though I studied in "Classe prépa" instead – PaoloH Aug 26 '16 at 8:14
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    Professors can't keep concentrating for four hours, either! – JeffE Aug 27 '16 at 3:22
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In general, if you aren't "pumped up" about major classes and not fully engaged with the lecture, you're probably in the wrong major, however, with some research, you can see that the average attention span of an adult is around 20 minutes, so your situation is totally normal.

I've struggled with ADD my whole life, so learning how to zone in while I'm zoned out was a full time job for me. I've gotten to the point where I'm pro at being attentive during lectures, here's what I've learned:

  1. Lectures are much more interesting when you apply a purpose for them. For me I'm a computer science major, so what I did was compiled a "reference bible" of useful things that I could use in the future. Another thing I did was continuously develop a game. I tried to incorporate everything I learned into the game, it was pretty much a challenge, so that made programming lectures much more fun.

  2. Invest in a smart pen. I swear I will never live without one of those things ever again. It kind of forces you pay attention to the lecture so that you can mark important topics down to make it easier to reference. Be carful though, it's easy to get lazy while using it, but just keep in mind that having to listen to a lecture twice isn't fun nor is it a good use of time.

  3. Force yourself to ask questions. I ask at least 5 questions per hour before the end of a lecture, which for me is a question every 12 minute; well below the average attention span.

  4. After you do homework, look up the next chapter online. Use everything at your disposal: YouTube tutorials, blogs, research documents, forums, etc. Not only will you be prepared for the next lecture, you'll already know what you're having trouble understanding which is huge, especially for #3. If you're book is outdated and you find new information on a topic, use that to challenge the professor's lecture. Not only will that keep you engaged, it will make you look like you actually care about what they are teaching (hopefully you actually do!) and that you are taking the initiative to activly learn more than just what they are lecturing about; nobody likes a yes-man!

Overall, just getting rid of distractions never did it for me, so the way I bought of it is "solve the root of the problem, not the effects," because technology is a great thing to have when used correctly, so give yourself a reason to pay attention. Hopefully this helps!

  • I can't change my major, I don't know if there is an equivalent in other schools, but right now I'm studying different field. It's a non-specialist school, during the first two-years you have to take the same classes as everyone else. Which is why I may not always be able to use your first advice, for instance I have to study electrical engineering but I'm trying to get a mechanic related major next year ... I'll try to consistently apply #3 and #4 I always tell myself to do that but I procrastinate too much. – PaoloH Aug 25 '16 at 14:39
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    I'm not sure what a smart pen is, but if it is what I think it's too expensive for me. It's like 10% of my tuition fees for the year. It might be very useful though. – PaoloH Aug 25 '16 at 14:41
  • @PaoloH Touching up on #1, I'm sure electrical & mechanical engineering can be integrated, so both would prove to be equally useful. Besides, those are just examples, come up with something that would work for you. Pro-tip core classes can be more useful than you think. Procrastinating isn't a terrible thing as long as you get it done. I'm a huge procrastinator because I love the rush, but if you want to get rid of procrastination in general, try to be more prepared & plan things out; don't deviate from the schedule, because it's easier to repeat the deviation and harder to get back on track. – aud.io Aug 25 '16 at 14:58
  • As for the smartpen, it's about $100-$200 USD. Besides, if it makes the difference between having to take another semester, I'd happily pay the 10% rather than another tuition bill. – aud.io Aug 25 '16 at 15:03
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    With regards to number 3, be very careful about this. Of course it depends on the environment, and in some types of class this would be fine, but in what I understand by "lecture", that would be very disruptive. If even 10 others in the room did this, it would lead to a question every minute and would completely stall the lecture. Jot your questions down somewhere and ask them at the end. This has another advantage that you can scribble them out when (as is frequently the case) in two minutes' time, the question is answered anyway. – user2390246 Aug 25 '16 at 15:11
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I think that a key question here is why and how you stop paying attention. If you can understand what's happening, you can try to address it. Two main routes that I have seen (and experienced) are:

  1. Availability of distractions: if you start reading email, browsing the web, etc., then a good strategy is to start taking notes on paper by hand. Lock your devices away from yourself and make sure you take notes, as the act of note-taking forces you to follow along more closely.
  2. Physical impairment: long sitting in a warm and poorly ventilated room can impair your ability to pay attention for physiological reasons. If you find yourself falling asleep, zoning out, or daydreaming, this is likely to be a cause. Here, a good strategy can be to seat yourself in the back of the classroom, and then when you start having difficulty with attention, stand up and move around. Getting your blood circulating and your body in motion can do wonders for your ability to pay attention, particularly if you are generally physical or restless person.

Note that in a small class or a country with more formal classroom etiquette, it may be useful to have a conversation with the professor before doing the second strategy. In a big lecture in an informal place like the US, however, you can probably just go for it.

  • I am studying in a french engineering school with small class, and as you said, I can not use the second strategy. It would seem strange (the only reason why a student would move is to go to the toilet), but if I could apply it, I think this advice would actually benefit me, I've never thought of it. I will definitely try your first point (I always end up doing so. I didn't consider it, the issue, I thought it was only a consequence but I might have been wrong). Taking notes might help but usually my problem with that was that I had a hard time following the course while doing so. – PaoloH Aug 25 '16 at 14:16
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    @PaoloH If you can't get up, an alternative that may give some of the same benefits is the inflight exercise programs recommended for air travelers (e.g., this Virgin-Atlantic recommendation). You may also want to just ask your professor if they would mind if you did larger motions at the back of the class: some are more open-minded and supportive than you may expect. – jakebeal Aug 25 '16 at 14:19
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Take notes. Even if you are perfectly able to follow along and the lecturer hands out the slides, actually write (can type, but not as good) because the act of writing activates your brain in different ways. It doesn't matter if you never read the notes again, writing notes helps you pay attention.

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I have been in this situation several times throughout my educational career. One thing I have found that can be helpful depending on how much free/study time you have outside of school is to invest in a recorder that can plug into your computer. This way you can keep logs of your classes while taking notes. Then, when you are studying and feel lost on a concept, you can go back and listen to the lecture again.

  • I've never thought of recording a class but that might be a very useful idea, it won't help the attentiveness but it could help me out when I do miss something important. i'll try to look into that.Thank you – PaoloH Aug 25 '16 at 19:37
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There are two simple principles you can follow here, rooted in experimentally confirmed behaviours of the brain.

  • Active summarisation
  • Repetition

Active Summarisation: Your brain finds it easier to engage for longer periods if it is active, rather than passively receiving information. Also, once your brain begins working in a particular way, there is a momentum-like phenomenon whereby it will continue with the same behaviour.

So the key to attentiveness is to start your brain actively working. The best way I have found to do this is to summarise what is being said in my own words (in a shorthand). Even things that I already know - because if I start that way, it's easier to continue that way. I personally use pencil and paper rather than smartphone etc. - I remember seeing that there is some evidence that pencil and paper notes are more effective than digital notes. But honestly try things and see what works for you. The point of these notes is only superficially to have material you can refer back to later (which is why I think most digital apps somewhat miss the point). The main effect is that you are more engaged, and absorb information better the first time. Whatever technology you use the goal is to form the right information structures in your brain.

Repetition: Another strategy is to skim-read material relevant for the lecture ahead of time - even if only for 15 mins. Attention requires anchors - even if you barely understand the material first time you will have created references that will work as anchor points. When you hear related concepts repeated in the lecture you will find it easier to absorb them. After the lecture skim your notes again to help it stick.

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One break in a 4 hour lecture is a bit little. Teaching experience shows that most students struggle to keep on paying attention after about 45/50 minutes. Your 30 minutes is short (for university students), but the other answers should help (prepare the materials so it's easier, make notes, try to come up with questions - even if they get answered by the lecturer before you get a chance to ask them) as well.

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