Science of Learning: Attentive Thinking

Once students have planned where they want their thoughts to go, started their task or problem solving, persisted at getting the work started, they must focus. Focusing attention and concentrating on thinking is a difficult thing to do.

Because of the energy requirements for higher order thinking, as I wrote in the persistence article, the brain will attempt to conserve energy in any way that it can. One of the ways the brain can conserve energy would be considered the opposite of persistence. The brain will shift into neutral mode. Although there are benefits to relaxing and letting your mind wander, engaging in neutral tasks, and daydreaming, these activities do not constitute higher order thinking.

Goal-directed thinking is one of the core aspects of higher order thought processing. This requires attentive thinking. Attentive thinking or focused thinking can be tiring work. The energy used in attentive thinking is not massively higher than when a brain is resting (a brain idles at 12 watts). The resting energy requirements for the brain are so high, it is difficult to accurately measure increases in energy due to focussed mental activity.

When performing difficult thinking tasks for the first time, we are all familiar with the feeling of mental exhaustion. However, as with any activity, in people who regularly engage in focused thinking the reports mental exhaustion decrease sharply after prolonged periods of concentration. Researchers think that the energy needed for higher order thinking skills does not increase appreciatively if this kind of activity is a regular activity. This may be the case, but even those of us who do use our higher order thinking skills regularly know when we have had enough and when we need to take a break – a part of our metacognitive monitoring that is another higher order thinking skill.

Thinking is hard work, but when a challenging mental task that takes time and energy that may last for hours or even days is completed, there is a sense of an almost euphoric satisfaction that is often associated with a focused physical activity. Academics who engage in the rough and tumble of good, clean academic debate enjoy it, even if it is difficult. Thinking of or finding evidence that backs up a claim you are going to make (or maybe already made) is highly satisfying work. It is this satisfaction that we want our students to experience – the ah-ha moment. The smile that comes from the job well done.

However, students who are learning to use higher order thinking skills do not regularly focus in a challenging thinking mode. The cool refreshing drink of knowing what you have accomplished is significant often alludes them. How do we foster the attention that is needed to engage in higher order thinking?

An easy win has to do with their perceived audience. Research has demonstrated that if students are writing (or skateboarding or any number of activities) with their peers as the audience, the engagement is much, much higher. The audience is one of the primary motivating factors for academic engagement. All of us know that if we are producing something for our peers, we put more time and effort into the task.

Audience is one of the primary methods that I use to motivate students to focus their mental energies on their assigned work. Along with their peer audience, quick deadlines that require them to regularly (weekly) produce short articles that are backed by numerous primary sources along with responding (with evidence) to the feedback that they receive from their peers (comments with evidence) requires planning, initiation, persistence, a willingness to self-correct, attentive thinking, and the final aspect that I haven’t covered yet – reaching a consensus that draws a good clean argument to a close. Every student knows the expectations and they work hard to demonstrate to their peers that they can meet those expectations. They report to me that although they find it exhausting in the beginning, they find the same satisfaction that we find when engaging in those types of activities after three, four, or five weekly iterations of the same task (they have to do a total of 11).

My students constantly tell me that this kind of learning is what they expected university to be all about, that this kind of learning is fulfilling, find that they have regained their excitement about being in university and learning, and ask why my class is the only place that they find this. The best part is that they do all the work and I get all the glory (I’m quoting a colleague here).

There have got to be other ways to foster real attentive thought that is leading to a planned goal and requires all of the requirements for higher order thinking. If you have other ways to accomplish the same ends, please let all of us know. I know that there must be other ways, however, like most of us, when I find something that works that is what I do.

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