9 Ways to Stay Focused in Class
Do you ever have difficulty concentrating in class?
Maybe you’ve had the experience of glancing up at the teacher and realising that you haven’t heard a thing that they’ve been saying for the past ten minutes, and your notes are just a squiggly line. Or you’ve spent more time watching the clock than looking at your textbook. Or, worst of all, you’ve actually found yourself dozing off in the classroom.
Paying attention in class is hard work. Regardless of how interesting you find the subject, staying focused for an hour or more, in a room that might be too warm when you might not have slept enough, with a teacher who might not be as inspiring as you would like, is a challenge. That’s especially the case in exam time, when revising content that you’ve already gone over once gets tedious even with the best of teachers. But you won’t get much benefit from your lessons if you can’t pay attention in them – so no matter what the topic, here are our top tips on keeping your focus in the classroom for success in your studies.
1. Make sure you’re hydrated and rested
The best way to ensure that you can concentrate in class is nothing to do with what’s actually happening in the classroom; it’s about what you do before you head to school. Specifically, it’s about getting enough sleep so that you’re not feeling tired, and getting enough water that you’re not feeling hydrated. Keeping a bottle of water in your schoolbag so that you can have a drink whenever you feel thirsty can go a long way towards staying sufficiently hydrated. Similarly, if you’re finding that being hungry ends up distracting you in lessons, having a healthy snack like nuts and seeds in your bag to eat quickly between lessons can make all the difference.
It can be surprising how much looking after our bodies’ needs can impact our ability to concentrate. Research has suggested that judges are more lenient to criminals after they’ve had a lunch break; if basic creature comforts make such a difference even to a group of people who are well aware of how important it is to make decisions impartially, imagine how they could be affecting you. Admittedly, the school day is not that well adapted for teenagers to sleep well – several studies have suggested that early starts are especially difficult for adolescents – but you can try to get a decent night’s sleep where possible, and staying well nourished and hydrated is more easily achieved.
2. Eliminate distractions
When you lose focus in class, what do you end up doing instead? Do you try to sneak a look at your phone to see what’s happening on social media? Do you chat to your friends? Do you just find yourself gazing out of the window?
Whatever it is, chances are it’s a source of distraction for you, and you should try to eliminate it. That can mean sitting yourself at the front of the class, where you’ll be less likely to get away with checking your phone and you’ll be nearer your teacher. Switching your phone off, or leaving it in your locker, can also do the trick. It can mean sitting next to the more studious people among your friends, rather than the ones who’ll be happy to chat and distract you. And it can mean sitting yourself away from the window, so that if there’s something interesting going on outside, you won’t be able to watch. Of course, the latter can be difficult if sitting in a too-warm room is contributing to your lack of focus; you’ll need to weigh up whether the distraction of a window is greater than the benefits of being near a source of fresh air.
3. Do work at the right level of difficulty
It can be hard to do anything about the kind of thing that you are being taught, but where possible, do your best to ensure that what you’re being taught is at the right difficulty level for you. Work that’s too hard for you is tricky to concentrate on because you might not be able to understand what’s being said; work that’s too easy can be even more of a challenge because it’s liable to make you bored.
In either situation, if you have the option of choosing a set of problems or an essay title for yourself, take the time to assess the difficulty level that’s right for you. If you aren’t given those sorts of choices, then take the bull by the horns and arrange to speak to your teacher. Chances are, they’ll have noticed you getting distracted and will welcome your attempt to remedy it. They can set you work that’s more appropriate to your level of understanding, or, if the difficulty level is completely wrong, perhaps even arrange for you to be moved into a different class that might suit you better.
4. Think of questions
If the work is at the wrong level for you and there’s nothing that can be done about it, one way that you can help yourself focus is by thinking of questions. You don’t necessarily need to ask them, just think of them and perhaps write them down. If the work is too hard, try to work out what you’d need to know in order to understand it fully. If it’s too easy, have a think about what you would ask in order to advance to the next level. What questions would be asked of you if you were studying this in a more sophisticated way?
Even if difficulty isn’t a problem, thinking of questions can help you concentrate anyway, especially if you’re being taught in a lecture format. Just trying to take things in passively is inevitably tiring and can be dull; thinking of questions is a good way to keep your brain engaged with the topic at hand. If you don’t know where to start, try thinking like a toddler – interrogate the topic with questions like who, why, where, when and how; this is particularly effective in the humanities. When did something happen? Why then? Why not earlier? Why the specific person responsible? Why not someone else? That should keep your brain occupied for a while.
5. Get involved in discussion
If you’re not naturally the sort of person who speaks up in class, now is the time to change that. Instead of sitting passively while other people are talking, making sure you participate in class discussion is a good way to keep concentrating, as you’ll need to think about the topic at hand, what other people are saying, and how you might respond to it. You could even make use of some of the questions that you thought of above. That’s useful if you aren’t confident enough to answer questions yourself; providing a thought-provoking question of your own can be just as useful a contribution.
That’s not to say that you should spend the entire class asking incessant questions. Speaking up once or twice during the course of a discussion is plenty. If you have a particular point that you’d like to make, it’s a good idea to get it said early on, while the rest of the class is still getting warmed up and before someone else says it first.
6. Take detailed notes
If you already know the topic, or you feel that much of what’s being said is obvious, or duplicated in the textbook, you might think that you don’t need to bother taking notes. And it may well be true that taking notes won’t make any difference in your revision of this class. But if you’re not taking notes, then you’re just listening passively to what’s being said, and that makes it much harder to stay focused. You might even find yourself doodling rather than paying attention.
Making detailed notes forces you to concentrate on what’s being said in the classroom, process it and then write it down in a digestible form. Not only does it mean that you actually pay attention, but you’re also more likely to remember what’s been said as a result. It can feel like a waste of time to take notes on something you already to know, but you have to be in the classroom for a set period of time anyway. Is it more of a waste to spending that time taking down notes on something that you know, or to sit staring out of the window and wishing you were more able to concentrate?
7. Find a source of motivation
Some of the hardest classes to concentrate in are the ones where you’ve already decided that the class doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a subject that you’re dropping at the end of the year, that doesn’t have any impact on your final grade, or that you know won’t help you towards your chosen career. It can be easy to slouch into the classroom, wondering why you’re even bothering, and switch off for an hour. But you (sensibly) don’t want to do that, or else you wouldn’t be reading this article.
With subjects where you don’t see the point in trying, do your best to find a source of motivation. That might be having some faith that your education system wouldn’t be requiring you to take this subject if there wasn’t some value in it, even just for broadening your horizons. Or it might be thinking about your planned future career, and seeing how the subject might have relevance. Or, if neither of those work, make up a scenario where the subject would be useful. Yes, you might think that everything you’re learning in comparative religion is dull, but if you make friends with people of different faiths at university, understanding their beliefs and the festivals they celebrate throughout the year will be invaluable. It doesn’t even need to be so plausible – you might find geology boring now, but if you ever become an astronaut, understanding the rocks that make up planets like Mars or the asteroid belt will be vital. Just so long as it’s enough to motivate you for the duration of each class.
8. Check for medical difficulties
If you’re doing all of the above and still finding it hard to concentrate, it may be worth considering whether there’s a deeper explanation. For example, students who need glasses – or who have them, but need a stronger prescription – may find that the hard work of squinting at the board all the time is wearing them out and sapping their concentration. The same is true of students who are hard of hearing, struggling to make out what the teacher is saying. If you find that sitting at the front – where you can hear and see more easily – makes a dramatic difference to your ability to pay attention, these are possibilities that you might wish to investigate.
There are other conditions that make concentration a challenge. ADHD, anxiety and depression all take a toll on our ability to pay attention in class, but may only be identified in more serious cases. Take a look at the symptoms and if they sound familiar, visit your doctor.
9. Use aids like gum, eyedrops or fidget devices
Towards exam time, you might very well know what it is that’s making you struggle to concentrate – such as stress, insomnia or simply too much work – but not necessarily be able to do anything about it.
This is where you might want to consider using additional aids to help your concentration. Eye drops can help with tired and aching eyes, for instance. If your school allows it, you might also find that chewing gum helps to keep you awake. Similarly, devices such as fidget spinners can actually be an aid to concentration rather than a distraction for some people. They were initially developed for people with autism or ADHD, who sometimes find that keeping their hands occupied helps them focus, by directing their inclination to fidget into something harmless rather than distracting. You might find the same effect holds true for you, even if you’re struggling with concentration for different reasons.
What has help you stay focused in class? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.