How to make students interested in just three seconds

On how curiosity is the first step to healthy joints in the index finger... And more.

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First published in Polish by Piotr Maczuga

Forty-five percent of those who pay attention to what you say for three seconds will keep their attention for at least thirty seconds more. This is proven by data on viewer engagement on YouTube from several years ago. YouTube is a specific media channel, so I will not go into the educational pros and cons of the platform. Nonetheless, it is some kind of indicator of our times.

During a recent webinar, a teacher participant asked if she would soon have to cut her lessons to few-second bits resembling short-form content posted on TikTok. After all, the fad for abridging, condensing or atomising has been going on for ages. Ninety-minute lectures are now nothing more than a traumatic memory from our university days. The eighteen minutes which TED has been offering for years seems a reasonably balanced time, but even here, opinions vary. Going to extremes is not good, which also holds true about the interpretation of trends, but the truth is that we, educators, also fight for those first seconds of attention: in a lecture hall, during a webinar or a TED talk, or when we are preparing contents for EPALE. If you do not catch attention almost immediately, there is a good chance that you will be simply turned off; the readers will swipe their fingers across the screens of their devices and instantly forget about you. You can delude yourself that serious people take serious things seriously and have more patience than flippant viewers of YouTube or TikTok. But the catch is that we rarely get to choose our students.

No time to focus

In a traditional teaching environment, students need more time to figure out the situation. Will the lecture be of any use to me? Will I need to know its contents for my exam? Ultimately, it all ends the same way. Usually, after a minute or so, some of the group will more or less discreetly reach for their phones. A professor friend recently told me that he stopped paying attention to this because he actually preferred the students to have their phones on their desks rather than keeping them hidden for an hour or more. This kind of divided attention can strain their neck.

It is hard to believe that a procedure or etiquette can make someone pay full attention to you for an hour and that they will be equally engaged from beginning to end. For years, neuroscience has been bidding against itself with the ever-shorter concentration spans we as homo sapiens can afford. We know very well, also as students, that what is expected of us is impossible. A standard working day is eight hours and there are professions in which this is counted very precisely (e.g., in some customer service or programming jobs). At the same time, studies show that we can work effectively for less than three hours a day. We simply know that eight hours is a tall story. We know that a forty-five-minute webinar is too much, and five minutes to pitch your idea to investors seems like forever. We assume that we will not be able to focus our own and others' attention for so long, so sometimes we give up in advance.

Based on statistics on courses and training I supervise, I can see that we lose them if training contents do not impress participants within the first few seconds. Sometimes it is sad to see how our great efforts are not appreciated. I mean well-prepared lessons, which are faultless methodically, technically and in terms of content. And yet, a few seconds of delay and they become victims of scrolling or skipping. And this is largely because students have given up after a few seconds, assuming that they will not concentrate for a few more minutes. In the case of video-based education (e.g., in popular MOOCs), a common practice for students is to scroll the contents to somewhere near the very end to get to the summary of a given lecture and possibly figure out how relevant it is to the overall outcome of a future exam. As for education offered on social media channels, skipping the contents and moving on to the next material, usually by a different author, is anything but a rare phenomenon. Well, you can dismiss YouTube or claim that what it offers is not real education. You can do all of this and more, but none of this will stop social media from being popular, I am afraid.

A maths teacher from Taiwan became famous for posting his algebra lessons on an adult video site. He presumed that this was where he had the best chance of reaching a large number of those potentially interested in maths. Adult movie fans appreciated the gesture, and by converting from an adult site to an educational platform with the teacher's online course, they made him 250 thousand dollars richer. The forces that drive education today are distributed in a truly strange way.

How to use your three seconds

One of key measures of success is the ability to arouse curiosity. It is curiosity, which works a bit like a drug, that keeps us from scrolling down. "I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious," Einstein once said. Yet, we teachers do not have the luxury of time to cultivate curiosity like a bonsai tree. After all, we only have a few seconds.

So, what should you know about curiosity? Scientists have discovered that a predisposition to curiosity is a bit like an inverted U (if you want to present it in the form of a graph). Thus, we are the most curious when we already know a little about a topic, but not too much. The possessed knowledge allows us to get hooked on a topic, but our deficiencies make us unsure of the answer. And it troubles us so effectively that we cannot leave it alone. This fits, somewhat, with the information gap theory that George Loewenstein, professor of behavioural economics at Carnegie Mellon University, described in the early 1990s: curiosity arises when you feel your knowledge is incomplete. A good teacher can make good use of it. The dull but surely valuable literature of positivism can be salvaged in the eyes of teenagers by asking the right questions or using parallels to their lives and problems from the very beginning. 

Curiosity killed the cat, …

And this is where we get back to the lead, which hopefully aroused your… curiosity. Curiosity makes you stop and interrupts doomscrolling, which is nothing more than unstoppable, compulsive scrolling. You have been there repeatedly to mention your social media consumption: life is short, and a Facebook wall is long.

Doomscrolling is an education killer. But when you see your child mindlessly staring at their smartphone and swiping their finger from bottom to top, there is no need to worry. Nothing happens mindlessly. Despite what this may look like, the child's brain is working at a pretty high speed. It works, and it needs stimulation, especially in situations where the eyes and at least one hand are free: on a bus, in a waiting room at the dentist's, during lunch with the grandparents. There is a reason why the current traffic code prohibits using a phone when crossing the road. If we cannot even walk forward without hurting ourselves, how are we supposed to focus on our studies. If curiosity can interrupt this process, it is perfect because in the long run, doomscrolling is bad.

Researchers at the University of London found that such activity can lead to a sense of being overwhelmed by a stream of information that seems out of control. While scrolling may seem like a way to get information, it can also simply "feed" the brain's response to stress, bombarding it with (often negative) content, prompting it to release cortisol and keeping it under constant tension. It would help if you also remembered that your screen time in the era of remote work and study had increased dramatically, making us all the more susceptible to scrolling addiction.

There is one important reservation, though. It may seem that the more interesting posts you find on the internet, the more scrolling you are exposed to! Well, this is not the case. After all, doomscrolling is a response to curiosity! And it is up to us, educators, to ensure that curiosity is satisfied and keeps students engaged for longer. After all, if you make them interested, they will not scroll away. And the fact that you only have a few seconds to do this is a different story.

I specialise in video content, so let me end on this note.

Have a look:

(Did the first three seconds make you want to see more, even though it's a simple advertisement of an air freshener?)

Suppose you would like to broaden your knowledge of curiosity in the learning and teaching process. In that case, I recommend Monika Michalak's (UAM) doctoral dissertation, a very interesting study in language learning.

Read more (here you will find the bases for my hypotheses and supporting data)

Piotr Maczuga – a writer, video maker, trainer and public speaker on new technology in adult education. He is the manager of Digital Space, which produces multimedia educational content and digital events. He is a co-founder of the Digital Creators Foundation and an Ambassador of EPALE.

Further reading:

Three technological changes in on-line adult education that are still underappreciated

Mistakes made when running educational webinars

Education in the Time of …COVID-19

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