Cookie Consent by

Maintaining Attention

It goes without saying, you need the attention of your students in order to teach them. But everyone gets distracted, it is part of being human! In this article we introduce the Happiness Hypothesis and provide strategies for maintaining attention.

The Happiness Hypothesis

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of an elephant and its rider to describe the struggle we have with maintaining attention. The rider is our conscious and controlled thought. It is rational and plans for the future therefore allowing you to sacrifice short-term rewards for longer-term gains. On the other hand, the elephant represents the gut feelings, visceral reactions and emotion we all feel. It is autonomic and drawn to the novel. It likes the pleasurable, comfortable and familiar. Importantly, the elephant is bigger and stronger than the rider. It does what it likes and may even ignore the rider.

Elephant and Rider

The implications are obvious. If the elephant is not engaged, the learner cannot pay attention. Whilst the rider can force the elephant to engage, it is cognitively exhausting and uses the finite resource of will power. Therefore, self-control is limited and exhaustible.

Hyperbolic Discounts

However, not all is lost. There are small tricks we can use to attract and engage the elephant to improve our ability to maintain attention. This places a smaller burden on the rider freeing up important cognitive capacity to focus on the lesson.

Hyperbolic discount describes our tendency to prefer rewards sooner rather than later, even if the later rewards are bigger. This works until a point when the reward is large enough, and we will wait. Teachers can be use this in two ways:

  1. Use Learning Immediately: If learning can be used immediately, it will trick the elephant into staying focused. We can do this by moving learning closer to the point of use or by moving the point of use closer to the learning.
  2. Create a Sense of Immediacy: Alternatively, we can create a sense of immediacy. This can be done by using compelling stories, showing concepts (not telling), creating interesting dilemmas, playing on emotional resonance, using consequences or limiting time and resources.

Remember, attention is a resource that can be allocated. If the learning can be used immediately, we will stay focused. If it cannot be used immediately, it is harder to maintain attention.

Engaging the Elephant

We’ve talked about the hyperbolic discount, but what does this look like in real life? Well, below we discuss four tricks you can use to try and maintain attention. Make sure that the device you use to get attention is intrinsic to the subject material. If it isn’t, you might be introducing a competing distraction into their day! Remember; attracting attention is not the same as maintaining attention.

Tell It Stories

Social Engagement

Shiny Things

Surprise It

Tell It Stories

Stories fall onto existing shelves. Their logical flow makes them easier to recall, whilst suspense leads to excitement and creates a puzzle for learners to solve. You can use these two tactics when telling a story:

  1. Heroes: Make leaners the hero of their own story. They will feel like capable learners if you are able to create a sense of achievement. Try getting them to solve a puzzle or show them what they can do and how they can get there. Organise content around these achievements.
  2. Urgency: Create a sense of immediacy. Learners should then deal with topics that are both important and urgent. After all, we are wired to pay attention to the things that could kill us! Create a sense of urgency by using a compelling story (i.e. story where a protagonist must grow to overcome obstacles), posing an interesting dilemma (i.e. present two bad/good options from which they must choose), constrain time and resources or by demonstrating consequences to their actions (i.e. showing, not telling).

Social Engagement

Tell your learner the other elephants are doing it too! We pay attention when others are involved, indeed it feels more worthwhile. Social engagement brings many benefits as students share knowledge and bring their own experience to the table. Encourage collaboration as this will help leaners develop negotiation and team working skills as well as allow them to help one another and share resources.

Shiny Things

Grab the elephant’s attention! The novel, exciting and unusual grab the learners’ attention. They also help distribute the information being processed between our different senses. Understand why you are using them. It may be for decoration, to demonstrate progression or as a conceptual metaphor. Shiny things may also help build shelves and provide context or triggers to the learning.

Surprise It

Unexpected rewards result in improved attention. This is a hangover from our caveman days when we would devote more attention to the unexpected as a means of survival. You should also try appealing to your student’s sense of curiosity. This occurs when their attention becomes focused on a gap in their own knowledge and they are motivated to fix it. You can encourage curiosity by asking interesting questions, being generally unhelpful and leaving out information. This means they will want to look for answers to fill the gap. Finally, you could create a sense of dissonance and challenge them with something that doesn’t match their view of the world. This forces them to try and explain that new perspective, and if unable to do so, they must reconcile it.

A Word of Warning

There are two strategies that have not yet been touched on. They are both valid strategies, but they should be used with caution. Use competition and prizes sparingly.


Competitions create instant urgency, but they should be used sparingly. Their disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. First of all, it teaches individuals to win rather than focus on the mastery of subject material or the wider application of concepts. Second, not all learners are competitive; indeed, some may find competition stressful. In any case, competition is a poor long-term motivator.


Prizes are less dangerous, but again they are tricky. Rewards provide a sense of immediacy and can be used as a prize in learning games. However, they are also extrinsic to the learning process and may demotivate learners if the prize is not sufficient enough or if the reward is viewed as a form of payment for their ‘work’. You can try and make the rewards intrinsic to the learner, but this is difficult as you cannot decide what is an intrinsic motivator to them.


  • The Happiness Hypothesis; John Haidt
  • Design for how people Learn; Julie Dirksen