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Eye-Tracking Study Finds Students’ Attentiveness Depends on Location, Location, Location

The conventional wisdom among educators that students’ attention tends to drift off after 15 minutes is wrong, according to a new study conducted with eye-tracking devices.

The study, conducted by David Rosengrant, an assistant professor of physics education at Kennesaw State University, found no pattern in when students become distracted. Instead, students’ focus waxes and wanes throughout a lecture and is strongly affected by factors such as where in the lecture hall the student is sitting.

Mr. Rosengrant did a preliminary eye-tracking study in a spring-2011 science-education class. He had student volunteers wear special glasses to track their eye-gaze patterns to determine if they were “on task,” which was defined as looking at the professor, at PowerPoint slides, or at notes, or talking to neighbors about a discussion question. Students doing anything else, such as looking at Facebook or at their cellphones, were considered “off task.”

Mr. Rosengrant had eight students wear the eye-tracking glasses for one lecture each during the course of the semester. He repeated the study while teaching the same course in the fall of 2011; this time, six students wore the glasses four times each.

“I have access to student records, so I took a look at age, gender, scores, to try and get a group of different students” for the study, he said. “I tried to get some who were A students, some who were C students—I wanted, say, a traditional 20-year-old and a nontraditional student who was 37.”

Mr. Rosengrant hasn’t finished analyzing correlations between on-task behavior and demographic data. Over all, though, a student’s location in the classroom was an enormous factor affecting whether the student was on task, he said.

“The students who were in the front and center of the room really were on task much more than the students in the back of the room,” Mr. Rosengrant said. A variety of reasons account for that pattern, he said. Students at the sides of the room are more likely to have to crane their necks to see the board, which is tiring, while students at the back are often distracted by the visible computer screens of those sitting in front of them.

One surprise was that students spend only 30 percent of their on-task time looking at the professor, though interest in the professor increased when he drew something on the board or went over quiz answers. When off task, students were most likely to be on Facebook or texting. Other causes of distraction were students’ entering or leaving the classroom.

“I thought the students would really spend a large majority of the time focused on me because I’m the instructor, I’m talking,” he said. “But I really found out a lot of the time that though students were paying attention and they were on task, most of the time was spent looking at the board and looking at their own notes. They didn’t spend as much time looking at me as I thought they would.”

Mr. Rosengrant will try a similar experiment again after the spring of 2013. Instead of following different students, he will focus on a single student from the beginning of the academic year to the end.

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