Psychology in the Classroom – Selective Attention

Teaching psychology has taught me things about humans and learning and the classroom that I wouldn’t have experienced had it not been for the psychology curriculum. I think it important to pass some of these lessons along to teachers so as to improve their own instruction. Some of these lessons introduce particular theories of learning, some deal more with the human condition and how this may manifest itself in the classroom. All of these lessons are meant to be bite size; quick five minute reads that give you something to consider before your next class.

In this first installment, let’s focus on selective attention. Millions of bits of information bombard us every second of every day; from all our senses. Selective attention is what we consciously attend to. For instance, right now, of all the light waves entering your eyes in your periphery, you are consciously attending to the waves that make up these letters. Because you grant your conscious attention to these letters (and understand their meaning) you are simultaneously understanding what you are reading while you cannot attend to other stimuli in your environment. This is but one example. I think you can see how this simple example could also apply to the multitude of sounds around you, also.

Check out this very short video highlighting selective attention. Please make sure your volume is turned up to hear the instructions.

Did you count the correct number of passes from the team in white? Did you see the moonwalking bear?

Probably, while your attention was focused on the team in white, you missed the bear moonwalking across the screen. You selectively attended to one stimuli, and in doing so, completely missed the conscious encoding of other information in that same environment.


How does this apply to the classroom?

Well, whatever students attend to is what they have an opportunity to learn. If they don’t consciously attend to the lesson because they are on their phone or focusing on any other distractors in their environment, they will not remember the lesson. It is that easy. I mean, think about the moonwalking bear. If you did not attend to it the first time through the video, no amount of thinking about what you didn’t see will make you see the bear. While selective attention isn’t the end of remembering in the classroom, it is a necessary component. Without it, there is no learning of instructional material.

Think about your classroom. What do you provide in the learning environment that may distract from the lesson you’re teaching? Any extraneous materials on the wall that don’t apply to the lesson? Are all students facing instruction? Whatever you can do to limit distraction, do that. A busy room may look good for an observation by administration, but it isn’t good for learning. Now, I’m not saying empty walls should be the goal, but information that is present should apply to the overall context of the lessons being taught.

Talk with your students about this…go to YouTube and find the moonwalking bear video to demonstrate (There’s another great one, WhoDunnIt?). Ask them what can they do within their own learning environment to limit distraction and focus attention. A great start usually involves discussing putting the cell phone away and turning off Netflix. Again, if they’re binge watching a new show while also trying to study…they’re probably not doing either well. 1. You can’t multitask. 2. Task switching (what they’re really doing) also negatively impacts memory.


Selective attention impacts every learner, no matter the grade level or subject being taught in the classroom. Students and teachers alike need to understand what it is and how it impacts learning. Giving a little attention to the learning environment before studying and during class can prevent distraction so learners are better able to selectively attend to the necessary information. It’s an easy thing to do, it just takes practice to become a healthy habit of learning.

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