Myths and Misconceptions Reflections Reimagining teaching and learning

Engagement and attention: recognising the difference

We use the word engagement a lot in education. Chris reflects on whether what we often think of as engagement is actually more like attention and why it’s important to be clear about the distinction.

[This post is the second in a series where Jisc’s team of digital practice subject specialists challenge some of the myths and misconceptions they regularly encounter. They’re intended to be gently provocative and we’d love to hear your thoughts and challenges. Stay tuned to this blog for more]

We use the word engagement a lot in education. I wonder whether often what we think of as engagement is actually better described as attention.

“Pay attention at the back”

Here’s an example.  Have a look at this picture…

Engagement? - Students wearing head-mounted brain monitoring devices

It’s from a THE article a few months ago describing a device which is essentially a Fitbit for the brain with an added video camera. It’s being  marketed by FUVI Cognitive Network.  The article describes it thus:

To look at, the headset would not be out of place on an episode of Star Trek. It places seven electroencephalography sensors on the wearer’s forehead, which are said to record brain activity during lectures and seminars. The intention is that students download the data at the end of a class, identify periods when they were less engaged and go back over them.

Source: – emphasis mine

Later in the piece, the OU’s Mike Sharples comments:

“While it’s possible to detect periods of inattention, that says nothing about why the student isn’t paying attention, nor about how to help the student learn more productively,”

Professor Mike Sharples (emphasis mine)

Let me spell something out from the start. Getting someone’s attention isn’t a bad thing. Ira Glass talks about how stories are subject to a form of entropy where a storyteller needs to find ways of injecting energy into the process in order to maintain the audience’s attention and interest.

I think something similar goes on in teaching. The art and craft of being a good teacher or learning designer is to use tools and skills at their disposal to carefully pace learning so that there are peaks of interest and energy and lulls in which people can reflect and absorb.

The thing about attention is that it is easier to quantify than engagement. It can be measured in time, physical presence, actions and so on. For organisations, this makes it a useful indicator of activity related to learning but it only gives part of the story.

Engagement is on the terms of the learner

Engagement is a very different beast from attention. It’s much more ambiguous and open to subjective interpretation, and it’s something that I think happens on the terms of the person doing the learning rather than the person or organisation providing the teaching.

I don’t think you can safely use measures of attention as a direct proxy for this. We can look at measurable behaviours but these are the outcomes of something, so we should use them as clues to things we can uncover through listening and, of course, engaging with the data “subjects”.

And engagement isn’t all about consciously enjoying an experience or being self-motivated to complete a task either. Someone’s ability to withdraw their attention can be a legitimate and powerful form of engagement, albeit an uncomfortable one and difficult for an organisation to acknowledge. Another person campaigning to decolonise a history or science curriculum is also deeply engaged on their own terms.

Have a read of Donna Lanclos’ recent keynote to the APT conference, particularly the bit about ID card monitored attendance.

Learner engagement can create unpredictable outcomes and I’ve had the best learning experiences when my teachers embraced this. As an example, I took an MSc in Technology Enhanced Learning at Sheffield Hallam up until 2013. The course leaders positively encouraged us to interpret activities and assessment tasks in ways that were meaningful for us and as a result I got deeper into the learning than I have in any other course I’ve done. It might sound like a recipe for chaos but it was skilfully managed. I’m still thinking deeply about it 6 years after I finished!

Perhaps this is the reason why the DfE’s recent research into Learning Gain (LG), a solid, empirical measure of learning success achieved an inconclusive outcome recently. There’s much more to LG than looking at student attention, but it does highlight the problem of how organisations capture and compare information on the complex picture that is the learner journey.

“Do I have your attention?”

There is a dark side to this too. Attention is something that can be coerced. I can imagine there will be some organisations, beholden to their attention stats, that use their power to ensure that learners (or employees, of course) adhere to certain behaviour patterns and take that as an indication that things are working just fine. In those cases, attention and engagement become confused synonyms for “compliance”.

So what?

As learning technologists I think we need to be very clear about the different nature and purposes of attention and engagement, not confusing one with the other.

When we look at data, do we think we’re seeing engagement when in fact it’s just attention we’re measuring? If so, what further steps do we need to take to properly understand the engagement that is happening? It may be very different from what we expect.

We also need to challenge ourselves to examine the assumptions we make about what the data tells us.

And we need to think to what extent do we risk allowing a focus on attention metrics to determine the shape of the learning experience?

By Chris Thomson

I'm a Subject Specialist at Jisc focusing on online learning and digital student experience.

2 replies on “Engagement and attention: recognising the difference”

Hi Chris,

Here’s a thought… what about the other way? I can be totally engaged, immersed even. Yet my attention may not be on point. Music for instance. I have been totally engrossed in playing the drums, only to realise i missed the break or the singer looking at me because im playing the wrong part (happens a lot!). Do we look at it from that angle with teaching and learning?

Great article, thanks Chris. I can recall doing my MA in creative writing where I was so engaged in the task I was totally inattentive to the teacher. Anyone measuring my attention would have been sorely disappointed but anyone judging by outcomes would be delighted! It’s so important to resist the data-fication of teaching and learning becasue data-fication soon slips into data-fiction.

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