Shared Attention, Please!
Posted February 10, 2021
By Beth Morling
There are multiple reasons for “Zoom fatigue.” With nonverbal cues delayed or invisible, we can’t tell who wants to talk next. We get distracted by our own face. It’s too easy multitask. But remote classes also rob us of the fundamental human experience of sharing attention with others.
Some background: In social media teaching circles, the conventional wisdom is that instructors should not require students to have their cameras on. This policy is more inclusive (some students have poor internet connections or laptops without cameras). It’s also more private (students should not be expected to share their home environment with the class). For these good reasons, many students appear as black squares during my own remote classes.
I am on board with inclusivity and privacy. But “cameras off” comes at a price. According to University of Tennessee psychologist, Garriy Shteynberg, shared attention is focusing on some aspect of the world at the same time as others. The state of shared attention is instantly motivating. When we perceive that others are also attending to some message, image, or film clip, we more often remember the message, enjoy the image, or react emotionally to the film. People unconsciously and automatically divert mental resources to the things we are attending to together.
Empirical Examples of Shared Attention
In one study, Shteynberg asked people to study word lists simultaneously with a few others. Some participants perceived that they were studying the same words as people who shared their avatar (i.e., an ingroup). Other participants thought they were studying different words. As predicted, people were best at recalling the shared attention words—the ones that their ingroup had attended to at the same time. Shared attention enhances memory.
In another study, people watched emotional videos either alone or with another person sitting on the other side of an opaque partition. Shteynberg and his colleagues found that the paired-up viewers felt happier during happy videos and more scared during scary videos.A third study, led by Erica Boothby, found that sweet chocolate tastes better—and bitter chocolate tastes worse—when we’re simply sitting next to a person who’s tasting the same thing. These and other studies demonstrate that shared attention enhances motivation, memory, and emotion. It even leads people to adopt new behaviors—they copy actions they’ve watched with others.
Shared Attention: A Tool for Communities
Shared attention is adaptive for us humans because it enables ingroup coordination. If you and I have shared attention directed to some threat, then not only do I know about the threat; I also know that you know about it. Furthermore, I know that you know that I know about it. We can skip the preliminaries (“hey—do you see that fire?”) and jump right into solving the problem. Shared attention leads to common knowledge, which helps people work together.
According to Shteynberg, shared-attention states are common—they occur in stadiums, living rooms, and auditoriums (notably, many places that the pandemic has temporarily shuttered). In such settings, we can activate shared attention by announcing something publicly. In an in-person classroom, I might start the day by activating prior information—reminding my students what WE’ve been talking about. I know that individual students could review such material on their own before class. But shared attention theory suggests an added benefit to these public shout-outs. When I say it out loud, then we all know that we all know. We can jump into class discussion, collaboration, and problem-solving more efficiently.
Shared Attention and Digital Learning
When classes move to Zoom, shared attention instantly becomes less certain because most of the cameras are off. I can make public statements, but the students and I cannot be sure they have landed on all of our ears. Without the assurance of simultaneous attention, our classroom lacks the benefits of certain common ground.
My Twitter friend Dr. Brandy Tiernan wrote her 6-word teaching philosophy as “Learning happens best in a community.” I completely agree. Students can learn individually, of course. But we’re drawn to community teaching and learning because we are social animals. Experiencing our learning with others is immediately and implicitly motivating. We enjoy attending together, in real time, to valuable content, critical perspectives, and novel arguments. Zoom steals that from us.
Shteynberg speculates that shared attention can potentially break down in an in-person classroom, too. When certain students’ attention is diverted by laptops or phones, these attention defectors don’t just distract themselves and the students around them—they also, he argues, interrupt the shared attention of the class.
I’ll wager that certain university administrators are eager to convert our newly-acquired remote teaching skills into larger-scale, potentially-profitable “course delivery systems.” Call me a skeptic: Remote learning cannot replace the uniquely human magic that happens in in-person learning communities.
Approximating Shared Attention in Remote ClassesSince we can’t get the magic back by requiring students to turn their cameras on, what can we do? In my own remote classes, I have two ways to amplify shared attention. (I bet you use these, too, but here’s the shared attention twist.) First, I use regular polls. Zoom’s polling function is a good replacement for clicker questions, which already offer multiple pedagogical benefits for student learning, including immediate feedback, retrieval practice, and illustrating fine gradients of meaning. When you also share the polling results with students, they get to see that others are participating. (And here’s a pro-tip: Set up just one Zoom poll with A, B, C, D, E responses, and reuse it; put whatever questions you want on a slide.)
My other strategy is to use the chat window. Students can answer a simple content question, share their pet’s name, or reveal their favorite team—it doesn’t matter. Shared attention theory suggests that students will benefit just from seeing everyone’s answers flying by.
These ideas can help us muddle through until we’re all vaccinated, but they’re not foolproof. Ultimately, we might just need to hang in there. Next fall, we can celebrate being back together in the classroom, sharing attention to big ideas and to one another.
Author note: I am grateful to David Myers, Christine Brune, and Kathryn Brown for several helpful comments and edits on this post.
Beth Morling is a Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Delaware. At Delaware, she regularly teaches research methods, cultural psychology, a seminar on the self-concept, and a graduate course in the teaching of psychology. She attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and received her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She maintains a blog (everydayresearchmethods.com) that helps students and instructors find contemporary examples of psychological science in the news. As a board member at NITOP (nitop.org), Beth helps put together an annual conference on the beach in Florida, which helps teachers of psychology network, update their content, and explore teaching ideas. She lives near Delaware with her family, including three sons and an elderly puggle.