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Paying Attention in Class When You Just Don’t Want to

Paying Attention in Class When You Just Don’t Want to

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Whether it’s an upcoming college lecture, next semester’s high school Zoom classes, or any other kind of learning, knowing how to pay attention in class feels like the one thing they don’t teach you in school (you know what a mitochondrion is though, right?). There are a lot of reasons you may be having trouble with finding your focus inside the classroom, be it in-person or virtually. “Pay attention in class, get good grades,” the saying goes – but how?

Being in School and Wishing You Weren’t

With all the positives that come with smartphones and advanced technology, they’ve also affected our attention spans and ability to stay focused. When you’re in your college, high school, or Zoom classes, you are surrounded by distractions; your phones, laptops, and the surrounding students, for example. Couple these with even a little bit of boredom, and paying attention becomes a challenge. A 2010 study on the subject concluded that “[college] students do not pay attention continuously for 10–20 min during a lecture. Instead, their attention alternates between being engaged and non-engaged in ever-shortening cycles throughout a lecture segment.”1 There are a lot of people who don’t really know how to pay attention in class, and it isn’t necessarily the fault of anything in particular. You’re just distracted. 

Interestingly, you can think of your attention as a resource like any other, which means it can run out if it wanders too often; as your mind drifts from idea to idea, it gradually becomes less effective at accomplishing tasks.2 Taking a break between activities can be an effective way of “resetting” your strength of selective attention. In a school study, children were tasked with taking fifteen-minute breaks between lessons; some were read to, while others performed moderate and intense bouts of physical activity. In all three groups, attention improved after the short break, suggesting that simply taking a break once in a while can help you to pay attention in class.3

Coping with College and High School Zoom Classes

Of course, taking a break independent of your class isn’t always feasible, and with the added stress of at-home Zoom classes, finding your focus may seem impossible. Susan D. Blum, a university lecturer discussing her experiences teaching Zoom classes, argues that students and instructors are “delicately attuned to each other’s complete presence;” that interpreting “misaligned gazes, [and] interrupted conversation” stresses us out and drains our capacity to interact and pay attention in class.4 She makes a compelling case; staring at screens all day can sap the energy out of the most determined student. Whether you’re in college or high school, Zoom classes can be a tall challenge to overcome.

How to Pay Attention in Class, School, and Beyond

There are a number of strategies you can employ should you feel your attention waning regularly in your classes.

A student wearing an eSmartr sleeve raises their hand in class.
  • Identify your learning style. Popular theory suggests that there are four basic types of learning: visual learning, auditory learning, reading and writing learning, and kinaesthetic (hands-on) learning5 (though this is a debated concept in its literal interpretation6).Finding which learning style - or styles - helps you stay engaged is a great place to start. For example, you might:
    • Take shorthand notes
    • Colour-code information
    • Create graphs, charts, or other visual data
    • Record lessons to re-watch or listen again 
How you interact with your classes comes down to your own preference, but if sitting and listening isn’t working for you, that may mean it’s time to try something different!
  • Make healthy lifestyle choices. A lack of sleep, poor nutrition, or a rush to get ready in the morning can all have a negative effect on the day you’re having. Ask yourself whether you’re getting enough sleep in a day, or if you could be eating healthier foods. You’ll find it’s a lot easier to have a good day when you can pay attention in class and stay engaged throughout the day. 
  • Limit your distractions. You know what they are! This is a major concern for online classes, as students commonly log in from their bedrooms or living areas where their brains are used to relaxing. If possible, create an environment just for your learning, without distracting stimuli, like a home office. In the physical classroom, leaving your phone, spare notebooks, or anything else that can steal your attention, in your bag or at home can go a long way.


    You might have noticed a theme in the above suggestions – they all revolve around a healthy lifestyle and a clear head. Understanding and prioritizing your self can go a long way towards paying closer attention in class and optimizing your learning. eSmartr’s Cognitive Boost Technology™ can make a noticeable difference in this regard, by making it easier to find your focus and support your healthy lifestyle and continued learning. In the long term, this can have great effects on your academic success – In 2017, researchers from the University of Bergen indicated that “problems related to sustained attention and distractibility in primary school are important drivers of poor academic performance in high school.”7 At any stage of academic development, the long-term effects of inattention can be challenging to overcome.

    So whether you’re learning in online classes, vast college lecture halls, or even trying to self-teach a subject, knowing how to pay attention in your studies largely will come down to understanding and promoting your own healthy lifestyle. Natural solutions like the eSmartr Sleeve can also make a world of difference – but ultimately, you can make a big difference for your own performance. So prioritize your well-being and find your focus!


    1. Diane M. Bunce, Elizabeth A. Flens, and Kelly Y. Neiles, How Long Can Students Pay Attention in Class? A Study of Student Attention Decline Using Clickers. Journal of Chemical Education 2010 87 (12), 1438-1443, DOI: 10.1021/ed100409p
    Janssen, M.J.M. Chinapaw, S.P. Rauh, H.M. Toussaint, W. van Mechelen, E.A.L.M. Verhagen. (2014). A short physical activity break from cognitive tasks increases selective attention in primary school children aged 10–11. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 7,(3), 129-134,doi:
    Lundervold, A. J., Boe, T., & Lundervold, A. (2017). Inattention in primary school is not good for your future school achievement-A pattern classification study. PLoS ONE, 12(11), e0188310. Retrieved from

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