Concentrating on the Writing Task: Impact of Attention/Mental Effort

Learning in school requires students to exert varying levels of effort. When students do tasks that are easier or more automatic, less mental effort is required. But success on more difficult tasks requires students to exert more effort. Mental effort is particularly important when students are faced with activities that may not be especially interesting or highly motivating. The amount of mental effort a student can put forth depends, in part, the amount of mental energy he/she has. Students with sufficient levels of energy can exert the appropriate levels of effort to complete the many kinds of activities in school.

Here are some strategies to promote a student’s use of mental effort.

Helpful Hints

  • Adjust the rate, complexity, and/or amount of information students must take in or produce at any one time. For example, warn students in advance about material to be presented, e.g., tell the class that you will present five ideas, and then present the ideas in stages, with review after each stage. Provide summary charts, partially completed outlines, or other aids to reduce the amount of mental energy required when working with complex concepts, ideas, or activities.  
  • Shift formats, moving between lectures, hands-on activities, and discussions. Use cooperative learning, learning centers, and role-playing to more actively engage students.  
  • Modify your schedule so that students engage in important and effortful activities during periods of sufficient mental energy.  
  • Help students become aware of their periods of lowered effort, for example, use visual or verbal cues or touch a student lightly.  
  • Have students keep a diary or log of the time and specific tasks during which they seem to run out of effort. Students may find it motivating to create graphs that show their progress in controlling mental effort.  
  • Vary the length of student work periods. Schedule frequent, brief periods of activity, especially after difficult or effortful tasks.  
  • Schedule quiet time throughout the day, when students can rejuvenate mental energy.  
  • Teach students how to use textbooks efficiently, for example: how to use the table of contents and the index, how to use the questions at the end of the chapter to guide reading, and how to preview text before reading a chapter (by skimming for key words, dates, and names, looking at pictures for clues to meaning, etc.).  
  • Provide assistance when mental effort wanes. For example, pair students so they can work together as mental energy buddies, or provide jump-starts such as starting one or more math problems, reading the first passage of a text, etc.  
  • Use special devices, e.g., calculators, word processors, or tape recorders, that help students stretch their mental effort during periods of high output.