In the next instalment of our ‘How Does Learning Work?’ blog series, the Get My Grades Team is going to take a look at ‘Attention’ and how it plays a part in how we learn.

Before looking at learning we should look at cognition – the process of thinking. Effective learning requires thinking to take place. This is harder than it sounds – your body is bombarded by an unbelievable amount of information every single second and you cannot possibly think about it all, let alone remember much of it! So what do we need to happen?

  1. You generally need to pay attention to the information.
  2. You need to think about it and relate it to things you already know.
  3. Integrate it into your existing schema.
  4. Retrieve it to ensure the maintenance and reinforcement of the new learning.
Paying attention.

Your brain only pays attention to a tiny fraction of what is going on around you. It is hardwired to be very easily distracted by anything that might indicate a threat or an opportunity by your Chimp – movement, noises etc. This is obviously very useful for any animal living in a wild environment; there is an obvious advantage to noticing it.  Not so for linear algebra or chemical formulae! If you find you have become distracted; stop! Get rid of the distraction, go back a few steps (or perhaps to the beginning), or try a new approach.

Our brains filter a huge amount of stimuli and only make us ‘consciously aware’ of a tiny fraction of it. Much of what happens is filtered out as irrelevant. As a result, we can be very bad at identifying important features of our environment. Try watching the video below to test your own attention skills. See how you do.

You will probably notice, after watching that video, that you can miss some subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) aspects of the world around us, even if you try to pay careful attention.

Why is attention so limited?

The brain has limited resources to spend on interpreting the world, yet the world is full of opportunities and threats. It makes complete sense that the brain has evolved a remarkably efficient system for prioritising stimuli that are associated with threat or opportunity. It only makes sense to have one final decision-making system in the brain (or else you could make two different decisions about what to do!) and it needs to be able to make decisions in a timely and efficient manner. Therefore there has to be a limit in how much it can process!


So, how can you improve your attention? The following is a short list of things that you can try in order to increase your attention span, or to save as a reserve to use when you have lost attention during studying:

  1. Stay hydrated – one of the main symptoms of dehydration is a difficulty concentrating.
  2. Exercise – this will help you pay more attention when you’re working, as well as making you happier and healthier.
  3. Meditation – some people find that meditating helps them to focus and increases their ability to direct and focus their own thoughts.
  4. Change something about your environment. This could be as simple as moving to a different room.
  5. Change something about how you are studying. You could switch subjects, answer some questions instead of reading or go over a different topic.

The key idea to learn here is that you do have some control over your own attention and focus, both by taking measures that will make it easier, but also by being determined and self-disciplined to get yourself back on track and being productive if you get distracted (which will happen sometimes).

Hopefully this has helped you understand what attention is, why sometimes you lose it and what you can do to restore it! Next week we’ll be looking at our different types of memory and how they affect the recall of things you learn. See you then!