How to Focus for Learning

Original Editor - Robin Tacchetti based on the course by Michael Rowe
Top Contributors - Robin Tacchetti, Jess Bell and Kim Jackson

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Attention, or the ability to focus, is a catalyst for learning. It is a cognitive process that requires a state of mental alertness. Once in a focused state, our mind can concentrate, and we can acquire information and learn.[1][2]

"Being able to learn new things quickly is a defining characteristic of people who are outstanding in their fields."[3]

Learning requires us to focus our attention on the tasks or details that matter. However, much of our learning takes place in environments that do not support the focused attention that is necessary to learn.[3] 'Multi-tasking', social media, constant phone notifications, and other distractions create environments where "learning happens despite our actions rather than because of them".[3] Moreover, with emerging technology, information can be accessed anywhere and anytime, and it has been argued that our ability to access information so quickly actually has a negative impact on "our capacity to learn, understand and interact with each other".[4] Thus, when thinking about learning, we must aim to create environments that reduce distraction and support our need for focused attention.[3]

This page discuses how to focus when learning. However, to achieve this focus, we must also create good learning habits, which is discussed here.

Deep Work Vs Shallow Work[edit | edit source]

Deep work refers to the learning activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration.[3][5]

  • It pushes an individual's cognitive capabilities to their limit
  • It is cognitively demanding and feels like hard work
  • Examples include synthesising information from multiple sources, solving complex problems, close reading of challenging materials, etc

Shallow work often describes logistical-style tasks that can be performed while distracted.[3][5]

  • It is not cognitively demanding
  • Examples include writing emails, formatting lecture notes, scheduling learning activities in your calendar, and identifying concepts that need further elaboration

Both deep and shallow work are necessary for learning. However, it is beneficial to focus on deep work when we feel mentally energised and on shallow work when we are low on mental energy.[3]

Multi-tasking[edit | edit source]

Multi-tasking, sometimes referred to as switch-tasking or task-switching, is when an individual attempts to perform multiple attention-requiring tasks simultaneously. Multi-tasking or distracted learning can have a negative impact on learning. Students who multi-task actually require more time to complete the tasks:[6]

  • They need to keep refamiliarising themselves with an assignment or task after switching tasks, which increases the overall time to complete the task
  • Switching between tasks causes mental fatigue, which makes it take longer to finish the tasks
  • Long-term retention of information is weakened when attention is divided during the encoding process
  • During distracted learning, the brain "processes and stores information in different, less useful ways, resulting in knowledge that is much less adept at extending and extrapolating to new contexts (decreased transfer)."[6]

Types of Attention[edit | edit source]

The “clinical model of attention” divides attention into five groups:[7]

  1. Focused attention:
    • the ability to directly respond to specific auditory, visual or tactile stimuli[7]
  2. Sustained attention:
    • referred to as "concentration" or "focus"[2]
    • "the ability to maintain consistent behavioral responses during continuous or repetitive activities"[7]
    • supports more complex forms of attention (divided, selective) and other cognitive domains (memory, learning)
    • e.g. reading a book[2][7]
  3. Selective attention:[7]
    • the ability to maintain cognitive or behavioural focus when faced with competing or distracting stimuli
    • stimuli can be external or internal
      • examples of external stimuli include sounds, activity, scenery
      • examples of internal stimuli include internal thoughts, worries or contemplations
  4. Alternating attention:[7]
    • the ability to shift between tasks with different cognitive requirements
    • this form of attention is common for students as they alternate between listening to lectures and writing notes
  5. Divided attention:[7]
    • the ability to simultaneously respond to multiple tasks
    • attention alternates rapidly and continuously
    • e.g. preparing a meal and talking to family at the same time[7]

Sustained Attention[edit | edit source]

As stated above, sustained attention is what we think of when we think of focus or concentration. "Sustained attention refers to the ability to maintain focus and engagement to task goals over time, particularly in conditions of monotony and repetition".[2]

In sustained attention, performance tends to decline over time, and attention fluctuates from moment to moment or waxes and wanes. Sustained attention is determined by the dynamic interaction of emotional, motivational, cognitive and arousal factors. A deficit in one of these domains can cause the individual to disengage from the task.[2]

We develop the ability for sustained attention during childhood. Children need this skill to succeed at school. However, many children have difficultly maintaining sustained attention. Moreover, a number of learning disorders and neurodevelopmental conditions are characterised by impairments in sustained attention.[2] Studies show that attention problems in school can:[2]

  1. predict the amount of success achieved in reading and mathematics
  2. undermine traditional academic interventions
  3. predict graduation rates

Improving Sustained Attention[edit | edit source]

While it is recognised that paying attention and focusing are important for learning, it can be difficult to put this into practice. We often struggle to focus because it feels uncomfortable to be engaged in a cognitively demanding task (i.e. cognitive discomfort). However, we should think of "learning as a training regime" for our brain.[3]

Often, we might procrastinate or fail to start an activity to avoid this feeling of cognitive discomfort. Habit loops, which consist of cues, routines and rewards, can help establish new habits for learning.[8][9] However, even if we start a learning task, sustaining our focus or attention is difficult.[3]

Slattery et al.[2] discuss two approaches that can help improve sustained attention: cognitive attention training and state training.

  1. Cognitive attention training:[2]
    • also referred to as brain training
    • performing a cognitive task repetitively to exercise neural networks associated with attention
    • training typically involves practising video game-like attention tasks, using computers or tablets with adaptive procedures
      • the level of performance difficulty is automatically adapted to an individual’s level of performance
      • reward systems encourage motivation
  2. State training:[2]
    • performing a task to develop a brain state that is thought to influence attention and other networks
    • does not involve cognitive tasks
    • places the brain and body in an optimal state for sustaining attention
    • examples: meditation and physical activity
      • meditation / mindfulness mediation
        • paying attention on purpose
        • being in the moment and non-judgmental to internal thoughts
        • the individual selects a point of focus (e.g. breath) and directs their attention to it
        • the individual acknowledges if their mind wanders and then directs their attention back to the focus point[2]
        • for more information, see Mindful Learning in the Digital World
      • physical activity
        • exercise stimulates neurotransmitters which may improve cognitive function
        • norepinephrine / noradrenaline regulates arousal factors
        • physical activity that is more cognitively engaging (e.g. team sports) is more arousing and has an increased effect on focus versus physical activity that has low cognitive engagement (e.g. running)[2]

The most common interventions in school settings for enhancing focus are cognitive attention training, meditation and physical activity.[2]

General Strategies to Help Improve Your Ability to Focus[edit | edit source]

Michael Rowe offers the following strategies to help improve your ability to focus:[3]

  • Print out a personal mantra to remind yourself about the type of person you are (e.g. write down "I can do hard things")
  • Develop the mindset that you can delay gratification until some point in the future (also called cognitive control)
    • Doing something now that will only result in a reward in the future is an important skill for learning
  • Use time-blocking to commit to certain tasks
  • Become comfortable during the period of cognitive discomfort that often makes you want to distract yourself:
    • This feeling usually only lasts 10 minutes
    • Using the Pomodoro Technique can help
      • The Pomodoro technique is time management approach where you complete 25 minutes of focused work before taking a 5 minute break[10]
  • Use writing to focus your attention
    • It can be useful to add guiding questions to the top of the page you are working on, such as:
      • What is the problem I am trying to solve in this session?
      • What question am I trying to answer?
  • Try mindfulness meditation
    • Evidence suggests that mindfulness meditation can help you develop the ability to focus for longer periods of time[3][11]
  • Set a time to stop working
    • Taking breaks is important for a number of reasons, but most importantly, your brain needs time to integrate what you have learned and to link this new knowledge to existing frameworks in your mental model of the world
    • Downtime creates space for new insights to emerge and to recharge your ability to focus

Sources of Distraction and Solutions[edit | edit source]

There are three main sources of distraction:[3]

  • Environment
    • Structure your working environment to make it easier to focus:
      • Disable phone and computer notifications or leave your phone in another room
      • Consider browser extensions or apps that allow you to lock down your device for a period of time
        • Mobile apps that can be useful include the Pomodoro timer, Headspace, Waking Up, 10% Happier (meditation), Forest (to avoid your phone), airplane mode (to stop notifications)[3]
    • Work in a quiet space (e.g. a library), turn off your TV and avoiding listening to music (for deep work)
    • You may like to think about if you work better early in the morning or late at night
  • Task
    • A task can be a form of distraction. In particular, our level of distraction can be affected by the "perceptual load" of a task. The Load Theory suggests that "irrelevant (and potentially distracting) stimuli can only be perceived if there is sufficient spare perceptual capacity left over from task processing."[12] Thus, task distraction reduces when we undertake more perceptually demanding tasks.[12]
  • Mind
    • For example, are you experiencing relationship issues? Are you feeling restless or angry?
    • It is important to recognise these feelings, notice them and let them go

Implementation[edit | edit source]

  • Before a study session, create a plan for what you are going to try to achieve within a set period of time
  • Make sure you have snacks and a glass of water
  • Set a timer and keep going until the end of the session (you can use the Pomodoro technique or try different length sessions)
  • Put your phone on Do Not Disturb mode
  • If you cannot stop yourself from checking emails, opening new tabs etc, try an app that limits what you can use your device for until the end of the study period[3]

Resources[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Cicekci MA, Sadik F. Teachers' and Students' Opinions about Students' Attention Problems during the Lesson. Journal of Education and Learning. 2019;8(6):15-30.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 Slattery EJ, O’Callaghan E, Ryan P, Fortune DG, McAvinue LP. Popular interventions to enhance sustained attention in children and adolescents: A critical systematic review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 2022 Jun 1;137:104633.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 Rowe M. How to Focus When Learning Course. Plus, 2023.
  4. Lodge JM, Harrison WJ. Focus: Attention science: The role of attention in learning in the digital age. The Yale journal of biology and medicine. 2019 Mar;92(1):21.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Newport C. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. New York, Boston: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Schmidt SJ. Distracted learning: Big problem and golden opportunity. Journal of Food Science Education. 2020 Oct;19(4):278-91.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 Lai YJ, Chang KM. Improvement of attention in elementary school students through fixation focus training activity. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020 Jul;17(13):4780.
  8. Rowe M. How to Create New Habits for Learning Course. Plus, 2023.
  9. Chen W, Chan TW, Wong LH, Looi CK, Liao CC, Cheng HN, Wong SL, Mason J, So HJ, Murthy S, Gu X. IDC theory: habit and the habit loop. Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning. 2020 Dec;15(1):1-9.
  10. Almalki K, Alharbi O, Al-Ahmadi W, Aljohani M. Anti-procrastination online tool for graduate students based on the pomodoro technique. Interacción. 2020; 12206:133-44.
  11. Verhaeghen P. Mindfulness as attention training: meta-analyses on the links between attention performance and mindfulness interventions, long-term meditation practice, and trait mindfulness. Mindfulness. 2021:12:564-81.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Forster S. Distraction and mind-wandering under load. Front Psychol. 2013 May 22;4:283.