You walk into your high school science classroom with a rush of energy. You sit down into a sturdy chair and pull out a pen and notebook, ready to engage with today’s lecture. As the professor starts discussing biology, going into the nuances of the human digestive system or perhaps the Krebs Cycle, you find yourself losing focus. You waver in and out of focus, unable to coherently follow your teacher’s train of thought. The sentences that ring across the classroom fly in and out of your mind, leaving only fleeting impressions. Before you know it, the bell rings and you are sitting there wondering what happened in the last hour.

Does this scenario sound familiar?

At one point or another, we have all lost focus during a lecture. Not being able to concentrate in a class impedes how well you are able to perform academically. There are a variety of reasons why you may find it difficult to focus in class. In this blog post, we will go through some possible tactics and look at some of the common barriers that many students face.

1. Knowing your motivation

A key reason that students find it difficult to concentrate relates to motivation. Think about a class you find difficult to concentrate in. What motivates you to listen in class and do the homework? Is it because you find the topic interesting? Is it to get high grades for applying to university?

Some motivators tend to sustain our concentration better than others. Psychologists divide motivation into two types: internal motivation and external motivation. Internal motivators inspire you to invest effort in a task because you feel personally rewarded. For instance, you may want to learn the molecular pathway of how your cells convert glucose to usable energy out of respect for the beauty of physiology. Or you may love analyzing literature because you love how words offer us glimpses into other humans’ souls. External motivators are usually rewards such as grades, prizes, or prestige.

Several studies have shown that humans who pursue goals out of internal motivation, as opposed to external motivation, tend to focus longer.

What are your motivations for learning in class?

So, if you are not intrinsically interested in your subject but want to do well, what are your options? The first approach is considering if this class matches your aspirations and passions. If you have the freedom to choose your classes, perhaps consider taking classes that suit your interest more. If you don’t have the option (as is sometimes the case), think about certain topics or ideas in the class which compel you more. What fascinates you about those aspects and how could you translate that enthusiasm to help sustain genuine interest in other lectures?

2. Engaging with the lecture

One way of sustaining interest during a class is to ask yourself questions as the class is going on. For instance, when learning about the human circulation system, you could ask yourself where does the blood go throughout the body? Or what forces drive the blood to run through vessels? Or what makes the heart beat?

As you ask questions you actively engage with the class content and may even anticipate what the teacher will discuss, helping you remember more details.

3. Avoiding distractions

Another common barrier to focusing in class is having distractions. These could include phones, laptops, or even friends who crack jokes during class. Breaks in your attention limit how well you can concentrate on listening.

If you do find yourself easily distracted during class, consider implementing ways to distance yourself from distractions.

This approach could mean turning your cell phone to silent mode and avoiding looking at it during class, or sitting at the front of the classroom, or taking notes on paper instead of your laptop.

4. Sleeping well

Imagine showing up to class after just a few hours of sleep. Your mind feels foggy and you may start dozing during the lecture. Although it may feel tempting at times to take short-cuts on self-care, such as staying up late to finish an assignment (or watching Youtube videos), this sort of lifestyle leads to both short-term impediments, such as a lack of focus in class, and long-term harms, such as health risks. The solution to lack of sleep involves striving to get into bed early enough. Perhaps get into a calming down routine or ensure to get all your daily tasks done well before bedtime, so that you are not scrambling.

If you are curious about what recent scientific research has discovered about the impacts of sleep disturbances on our cognition, look at studies on circadian rhythms.

Research within the last few decades, in this blooming field, has shown that our bodies follow a series of different rhythms, such as sleeping patterns, which are reflected on a molecular level. For instance, our body has natural oscillations of the levels of melatonin, a molecule that regulates sleep, which follows external lighting. When we intentionally disrupt these molecular pathways by sleeping late, we are disrupting our body’s innate rhythms, often resulting in short-term cognitive impairment or long-term health risks.

5. Eating well

Another common barrier preventing students from concentrating is lack of proper nutrition. Skipping breakfast or lunch, for instance, greatly impedes your ability to focus in class. Recent scientific studies have shown intimate links between our guts and our brains. Dietary limitations or the types of foods that we consume impact our cognitive and emotional processing both in the long-term and in the short-term. For instance, low consumptions of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are found in fish and plant oil, were correlated with poor memory.

The gut-brain axis is an emerging field of research and will reveal more about the importance of our diets in the coming years. Most medical schools around the world have recognized the importance of nutrition by integrating more biochemistry courses (which look at how our bodies break-up nutrients) into curriculums. Take a glance at the recommended articles at the end of the blog post to read more.

Like the natural rhythms regulating sleep, our bodies have rhythms for optimally digesting food. For instance, studies have shown that our bodies have peaks of the levels of insulin, a protein which helps cells in the blood consume sugar, which correlates roughly with meal times. Thus, eating at haphazard times (or not eating) disrupts these rhythms.

In our busy lives, it may be difficult at times to find time to eat breakfast. Consider carving out more time in your schedule for meals or preparing breakfasts the night before that can be eaten quickly or taken to go.

Key Points:

• Different reasons for motivation impact how well we concentrate on our studies
• Actively engaging with a class’s contents and limiting distractions help you focus
• Healthy eating and sleeping patterns help you stay focused

MORE READING:

NUTRITION, COGNITION & EMOTION

Food For Thought: How Nutrition Impacts Cognition and Emotion by Sarah J. Spencer, Aniko Korosi, Sophie Layé, Barbara Shukitt-Hale & Ruth M. Barrientos, Nature Research Journal

IMPACTS OF SLEEP ON COGNITION

The Science of Sleep by BBC

Lunan Zhao

Lunan Zhao

Medical Sciences Editor

Lunan is a medical student in Canada and a visiting English student at Mansfield College, Oxford. He is particularly interested in medical humanities, social medicine, public health, as well as knowledge translation, and is excited to be Scholastica Inspires’ Medical Sciences Editor! In his free time, he enjoys exploring the distinct ways that metaphors shape both our literary worlds and scientific imagination, and loves going for jogs.