Picture the scene: you’re walking to the classroom while running through the main points of your lecture. You’re passionate about the topic, and your understanding is right on the cutting edge. Boy, the students are in for a treat today! You begin the lecture, and your students are furiously scribbling notes. You’re on a roll, and giving them a depth that other professors must only dream of. Thirty minutes in, when you’re just getting to the groundbreaking part, it hits you. Most of your students have stopped writing. Some are fidgeting in their chairs, others gaze into space, and a few toward the back are fiddling with their phones under the desk. Your oh-so-witty one-liner, so amusing when written at home last night, is met with indifference.
People have limited attention spans. Research in the 1970s and 1980s that tells us that the average human attention span is no more than 20 minutes, and that the best-recalled portion of a lecture is the first five minutes. Given that today’s generation of students are used to receiving information in easy-to-digest chunks (think of blogs and Twitter rather than lengthy books and articles), and prefer to do things themselves rather than listen to a long lecture, it seems clear that the job of maintaining student attention is even harder for the lecturer today. McKeachie’s (1986) observation that for lecturers to be effective they need to “combine the talents of scholar, writer, producer, comedian, showman, and teacher” (p. 55) rings ever truer.