Sustaining Effort: Impact of Attention

In order to complete writing assignments for school, students must develop their cognitive working capacity. That is, students must learn to initiate and maintain the mental effort needed to complete tasks and activities. The ability to manage one's effort is closely linked to academic productivity and success.

A strong capacity for work enables students to delay gratification and to persevere through tasks that take considerable energy, such as when writing an essay or report. A strong work capacity also helps students sustain their effort when information is worthy of attention, even though not immediately exciting, such as when writing an outline for a chapter they will be tested on.

Here are some strategies to help students sustain their effort throughout a writing assignment or study session.

Helpful Hints

  • Encourage students to think about training to study and do schoolwork in the same way they train for a sport. Such training involves getting into shape physically and mentally, eating regular, balanced meals, and keeping a reasonable sleep schedule. The more physically active a student is, the more heightened his/her powers of concentration will be.  
  • In addition to physical training, teach students to do mental training, for example, clearly separating study and free time, and being aware of thoughts and feelings about studying or assignment success. Help students realize that thoughts of failing, boredom, frustration, and other negative themes are likely to have a negative impact on performance. Encourage students to think positively and hopefully about their abilities and performance.  
  • Talk with students about personal study habits, exploring how some students study well in the morning, some in the evening, etc. Emphasize that the key is setting a study schedule that fits your personal style.  
  • Encourage students to take physical breaks, and to use stretching and walking around as ways to revitalize themselves. Explain that such activities cause blood to flow more evenly throughout the body, and more oxygen to be carried to the brain, thus making us feel more alert.  
  • Have students self-monitor their own progress as they move toward completion of tasks by using checklists, keeping logs, or marking progress on a graph.  
  • Help students establish manageable study sessions that they are likely to have success adhering to. An example of such a schedule might be: 1) set the timer for 15 minutes, 2) write until the timer goes off, 3) get up and move around for a couple minutes, 4) write for another 15 minutes.  
  • Encourage students to schedule short writing sessions, and to avoid marathon study sessions, which tend to be overwhelming and increase student procrastination.  
  • Encourage students to do their most difficult work during hours when they feel best. Most of us have periods of high energy, as well as periods of medium and low energy. Help students identify their peak times and plan their schedules accordingly, doing difficult work when energy is high, and easier work when it is low. Working this way may make them feel more efficient.  
  • Encourage students to work for a set period of time, so that an end point is in sight. Students often become more restless when they have no time goals.  
  • Help students learn to temporarily "park" ideas that are bothersome or distracting, so they can focus on the activity or assignment at hand. For example, suggest that students set aside a specific time each day to deal with such problems or concerns. Then, as they work, have students keep a pad of paper nearby, for jotting down distracting thoughts and ideas. This helps students know that their thoughts won't be forgotten, and allows them to return their focus to the immediate activity. By encouraging this type of time management, you acknowledge that student concerns are important and warrant attention, but not so important that they come before the work at hand.  
  • It may help students to begin a task on the day that it is assigned, and then to develop a plan for finishing the task, dividing it into "chunks" of work with established deadlines and rewards. Getting an immediate start may give students the momentum to chip away at a task in order to get it done.  
  • Promote "step-wisdom" in students, by teaching them how to use a sequence of logical steps to complete complex tasks, rather than trying to do tasks all at once. If necessary, help students identify the first step, and the steps that follow. For example, provide a checklist or goal sheet to help students break down a writing project into manageable steps, e.g. (1) select topic, brainstorm, collect data, (2) plan writing (identify audience, organize ideas, develop concept map), (3) generate first draft, (4) elaborate ideas, (5) evaluate and revise, (6) edit, (7) rewrite, (8) do final proof reading.  
  • If appropriate, offer reinforcements when students complete tasks. Let students help you decide which types of reinforcement they'd like and will work best for them.  
  • To help organize ideas for written output, students might benefit from using a tape recorder to "store" their thoughts by verbally discussing them on tape before they begin to write. They can then transcribe their dictation.