We can think of attention as a spotlight. Unlike working memory, there are not four spotlights. There is only a single spotlight of attention – a single beam of light. What we shine it on – internally or externally –is what we pay attention to. We cannot encode information that we do not pay attention to! “Selecting the most relevant stimuli in the physical world for processing while filtering out less relevant information allows us to respond quickly to critical environmental changes and achieve behavioral goals more efficiently. This process of information selection is referred to as attention” (Katsuki & Constantinidis, 2014).

Attention is a limited resource (i.e. part of our limited cognitive resources). Think of a teapot full of tea. We can use it up and then need a break to refill it. And the faster we pour – the shorter we can use it. For example, the greater the level of self-control (e.g. focus, concentration, effort) – the faster our attentional resources deplete and the easier we become easily distracted (Inzlicht & Schmeichel, 2012). This is a reason why multitasking is unproductive – we have to rapidly move our spotlight from one thing to another. It uses lots of resources and makes it harder to perform well. Remember if we don’t gain the student’s attention, the information we are teaching will not enter their memory system – or enters with degraded quality. Attention is critical.

A big challenge for educators is that our biological needs hijack our attention. Are we in danger? Feeling any pain? Hungry? Thirsty? Dehydrated? Too hot? Too cold? Too sleepy? Are we feeling any physical or mental discomfort? If any of these needs are activated, they are hard to suppress for long. Soon they’ll take over the control of attention and any learning not related to these needs will be extremely difficult. “Effective self-regulation seems to involve utilizing the glucose in the bloodstream to achieve what is a psychologically difficult and biologically costly task, such as stifling one’sbehavioral impulses or making difficult choices. When glucose – the primary source of fuel for all brain processes – has been depleted, the person is temporarily less able to function at optimal levels” (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007). When attention is distracted, depleted, hijacked – our encoding quality is poor and in the worst cases the information doesn’t get encoded, it doesn’t even enter our memory system.


Limitations of Attention
  • Inzlicht, M., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2012). What is ego depletion? Toward a mechanistic revision of the resource model of self-control. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 450-463.
  • Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Self‐Regulation, ego depletion, and motivation. Social and personality psychology compass, 1(1), 115-128.
  • Katsuki, F., & Constantinidis, C. (2014). Bottom-up and top-down attention: Different processes and overlapping neural systems. The Neuroscientist, 20(5), 509-521.


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Science of Learning Concepts for Teachers (Project Illuminated) Copyright © 2020 by Marc Beardsley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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