University of Alaska Anchorage
Concentration may be the most important learning skill for your tutees to learn--and you can help them improve their concentration. If tutees can’t concentrate when they are reading textbooks, sitting in class, or studying for a test, they won’t be able to retain what they are reading, hearing, or learning. The good news is this is a skill which can be strengthened with practice.
First, you need to clear up two misconceptions about concentration. The first misconception is that “good” students can concentrate for hours at a time. Because of this misconception, students often schedule study time so that they are studying, for example, all day Friday or all day Saturday. After examining over 350 study sessions, from first year college students to senior faculty members, I found the average concentration span in textbooks to be about 16 minutes. This means you need to encourage students to use 15-20 minute study sessions in one subject; they can then switch to another topic or another activity for the next 20 minutes. Some subjects and some study activities will hold their interest and concentration for longer than 20 minutes, but the average study span is about that length. Using 20 minute study bites and switching activities regularly during a three hour study period increases productivity and retention immensely. When concentration wanes, students need to be taught to turn away from that book immediately and switch to another study material, even if the time has been shorter than 20 minutes. Sitting over an open textbook while daydreams flow through their brains is counter-productive.
The second misconception students hold is that some people just naturally concentrate well and others don’t. Concentration is not an innate ability. It is a skill that can be learned and, with practice, students get better and better. Even students who feel they never concentrate in school activities can learn to concentrate if they practice.
Special Concentration Strategies
Concentration strategies include a balance of mental challenges, emotional involvement, and physical exercises. If any one of these components is missing, concentration will not be good.
Mental challenges: Teach students mental exercises which will improve concentration and ask them to incorporate into their daily lives sustained concentration on a simple task. The first step is to teach tutees a simple relaxation exercise (deep breathing to the count of four, and relaxing the body starting with the feet and ending with the eyes and jaw muscles). Then, with their eyes closed, have them picture a flower (or any object they wish to concentrate on). Encourage them to examine the flower in minute detail, examining this flower close up and far away. Start with 2-3 minute concentration spans. After tutees have concentrated on the flower for a few minutes, ask them to open their eyes and describe their concentration. The goal is to incorporate 15-20 minutes of sustained concentration into their daily schedules. You might wish to start every tutoring session with a brief concentration exercise. Even 5 minutes will make a difference in their ability to concentrate at will and sustain focus over a long period of time.
A second exercise to enhance concentration involves challenging tutees by teaching them to push themselves past their current intellectual level. If students get bored, the material is probably too easy, and they need to learn to incorporate challenges by learning more than they may need to learn for the class. If students get stressed, the material may be too hard and that makes students shut down. Stimulating intellectual activities need to be a regular part of students’ lives, or the brain is going to get hazy from lack of use. You might ask tutees to come up with 3-6 questions about the material they are supposed to learn or teach them to build their background knowledge in that topic by checking out easy books on the subject. Finally, distributed study with specific short term goals will help students concentrate. Teach tutees the 20 minute study bite and help them write specific study goals for each study period. A student may set a goal of reading one history chapter, completing 7 math problems, or brainstorming at least a dozen ideas for an English paper. Studying each subject for a little bit every day will help concentration and retention.
Emotional involvement: Tutees will learn they cannot concentrate on studies unless they have personal commitment to that topic. External motivators are the weakest sort of commitment, so encourage your tutees to concentrate on learning the subject rather than getting a certain grade. Help tutees to see how this topic can become personally relevant. Tutors might want to model by showing why this topic is intellectually challenging or personally relevant.
Negative emotions, especially stress, will detract from concentration; stress management strategies will help. These may include relaxation exercises, guided visualizations, humor, or other activities.
Finally, other people greatly affect tutees’ ability to concentrate. If they are trying to study in a dorm room when everyone else is watching television, they will find their concentration turning toward what the others are doing. This may mean helping tutees find other study times (after the children have gone to bed?), other study places (the library?), and situations where their minds can fully concentrate on the topic rather than the distractions of everyday life.
Physical exercise: The mind does not operate by itself and mind/body connections have been firmly established by the scientific establishment. This means students cannot have an Olympic quality mind with a couch potato body. The first rule for enhancing concentration is to get enough physical exercise every day, at least enough to break into a sweat. Encourage tutees to find physical activities that fit into their lives. This may involve walking across campus, a workout with weights, an aerobics class, or taking the dog for a walk every evening. The exercise brings variety into their lives and enhances the mind’s ability to sustain focus.
Active learning also helps. Encourage tutees to position their bodies in alert poses, to walk around while testing themselves over new terminology, to talk aloud about a chapter they’ve just read, to write something about the topic, to make new concepts or theories into a song, or to get physically involved rather than sitting at a desk.
In conclusion, tutees need to learn to monitor their concentration and to incorporate active concentration practice into every study session. Tutors can help by modeling intense concentration during tutoring sessions and by changing activities when a tutee’s concentration flags. Concentration--just as with any skill--can be developed with practice.