Issue 3 of The Fundamentals of Learning: Finding Focus
You’re sitting in class. The professor has been lecturing for about 45 minutes. You’re trying to concentrate, but it’s hard to grasp the new information that is being thrown at you. When the class started, you were excited to learn about this topic, but nothing seems to stick now.
What’s wrong with you?
Studies have demonstrated that we can only pay full undivided attention for 20 minutes at a time, or less. That is all the hippocampus can hold. And since the hippocampus is the key part of the brain when it comes to learning and memory, that limitation should be honored and accommodated.
Despite the fact that we have known this for the past 30 years, a large number of lecturers, teachers, and trainers believe that the more information they condense during a class, the more value they provide to the students. Learners themselves think they’re doing great work throughout two-hour cramming sessions before exams, only to forget most of what they’ve learned once the exam is over.
After 20 minutes of sustained attention, you have to take time to mentally refresh. When you’re learning by yourself, that short break can take the form of getting up, stretching and having a glass of water. Or looking out the window to let your mind wander for 5 minutes. You can also change the learning format (switch from reading to watching a video on the same topic, for example).
If you’re sitting in a training session, and you can’t get up and move around, the alternative is to mentally tune out for a few minutes in order to restart your attention timer.
Remember of the mental gym analogy. You wouldn’t go to the gym and work out for two hours straight, right? You would collapse because your body needs breaks in order to recharge. Guess what? So does your brain!
Write down 2-3 short activities that you can do in between learning sessions. They have to be short and allow your mind to refocus without difficulty once they’re done. (So no, watching a cat video on YouTube isn’t really the best choice.)