Site icon Center for Teaching, Learning & Engagement

Designing Interactive Lectures that Make the Most of Students’ Attention Spans

We’ve all been there. Standing in front of the classroom, diligently “covering” the day’s content as we watch our students’ eyes glaze over. Or calling on a student to respond to a question and realizing too late that she hasn’t been paying attention. Most experienced teachers would agree that it has become quite difficult to hold students’ attention, especially while lecturing.

Lecture remains common in today’s college classrooms because it allows course content to be shared with a large audience and in a timely manner, it enables teachers to control which content is elaborated and which content is de-emphasized, and it engages students in real-time, oral delivery of information that creates a multi-modal learning experience when paired with prior reading and simultaneous notetaking and discussion (Charlton, 2006; Kelly, 2017). Although lecture should never be used exclusively, it can be used effectively when teachers understand their students’ attention spans.

A study by Bunce, Flens, and Neiles (2010) used clickers to monitor college students’ attention spans during a chemistry lecture. These researchers found that lapses in college students’ attention typically last less than one minute and occur roughly 30 seconds, 5.5 minutes, 13.5 minutes, and 21.5 minutes into a lecture. After 22 minutes, students’ attention lapses about every two minutes (Briggs, 2014). Knowing approximately when students are likely to “zone out,” teachers can design their lectures to accommodate students’ attention spans with three simple steps:

Using one or more interactive lecture strategies such as these, the 21-minute lecture can be “stretched” across 40 to 50 minutes of class time while student attention spans remain strong and the teacher has more opportunities to adjust pacing, content, and emphasis based on student responses. The ideas shared here are adapted from Schurr and Forte (2014, pp. 170-171). For more ideas on how to make lectures interactive, see “Lecturing Effectively” by the DePaul Teaching Commons (2001-2017).


Briggs, S. (2014, June 28). The science of attention: How to capture and hold the attention of easily distracted students. Retrieved from

Charlton, B. G. (2006). Lectures are an effective teaching method because the exploit human evolved ‘human nature’ to improve learning. Retrieved from

DePaul Teaching Commons (2001-2017). Lecturing effectively. Retrieved from

Kelly, M. (2017, February 21). Lecture pros and cons. Retrieved from

Schurr, S., & Forte, I. (2014). The definitive middle school guide, revised edition. Chicago, IL; Incentive Publications.

Submitted by:
Jana Hunzicker, Ed.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Teacher Education
Associate Dean, College of Education and Health Sciences
Bradley University



Exit mobile version