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Maintaining Learner Attention Online

TEACHING A SYCHRONOUS ONLINE event is like teaching while wearing a blindfold and earplugs?you don't have any of the visual and aural cues that tell you whether students are engaged with the material. When teaching in an instructor-led class, you can tell just by looking at a student whether she is paying attention and even sometimes whether she understands the lesson. You don't have that unconscious feedback when teaching behind a computer.

Teaching Deliberately

In a classroom setting you also have significant control over the environment. In the online computer setting, you not only lack that control, but you also have no idea what distractions exist in each learner's environment. Consequently, you must use deliberate techniques to maintain learners' attention and help them to understand the information.

Visual Interest

Imagine teaching in front of a classroom. You speak clearly, you use your visual aids, you gesture meaningfully?all components of teaching in a classroom. But you also look around you and gauge learners' unspoken reactions.

These reactions may be as obvious as eye rolling to indicate disdain, a wrinkled forehead and tilted head to indicate puzzlement, or nodding to indicate comprehension. In extreme cases, a learner may even fall asleep. In any case, you can glance around the room, know in an instant how each learner is reacting to the lesson, and adjust accordingly.

In the online environment, you can't look around the room to see learners' reactions. Instead, you must assume that you're losing learners' attention and use deliberate techniques to draw it back and maintain it. There are several ways you can do this:

Keep slides visually distracting. Use animation and use your drawing tools to draw learners' attention to the slide and emphasize key points.

Change slides often. The act of changing a slide can catch the learner's eye and draw their attention back to the lesson. Have less information per slide and more slides than you might otherwise have in order to achieve this objective.

Gain learners' attention by making them do something on screen. Using your online event features, such as multiple choice questions, polling, or yes/no buttons, requires learners to consider the material and react to it in some way, thus drawing them back to the lesson.

Aural Interest

Making a lesson delivered in an online event visually interesting is only one way to maintain learner attention. It's also important to use audio to your advantage.

Use learners' names more than you would in a classroom environment. When a learner hears his/her name they're more likely to perk up and pay attention.

Enlist the help of "co-teachers" who can provide new voices. Often, the change from one person's voice to another can grab learners' wandering attention.

Call on learners to speak unexpectedly so everyone stays on their toes. If they're anxious about being caught unaware, they'll make sure they pay attention.

Stop your lecture often to ask if learners have questions. Soliciting interaction from them will help to pull them back from whatever daydreams they may have wandered into.


When teaching in an online synchronous environment, it's vital that you reach out to learners much more actively than you do in a "normal" classroom setting. You will probably need to be more aggressive than you may otherwise be about soliciting questions and feedback from learners. You also have to assume that learners aren't paying attention and use techniques to regain and maintain their attention.

These techniques will help keep online synchronous events visually and aurally interesting to learners so that they are more likely to pay attention to you and your material than to what's going on around them in their immediate environment.

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Donah Shine

Head Master

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