“If keeping someone’s attention in a lecture was a business, it would have an 80 % failure rate.”

Dr. John Medina




         One of the basic concepts of education is to make sure students pay attention. Attention for students is difficult because it is unnatural to put humans in an environment where they have to sit still and watch something that is not threatening or pleasurable. In fact our visual orientation and attention span probably have to do with the threat of predators and being able to orient to what the predator is doing.

After measuring eye-tracking in experiments scientists recently determined that “results indicate that dangerous animals capture and maintain attention in humans, suggesting that historical predation has shaped some facets of visual orienting and its underlying neural architecture in modern humans.”[1]

Humans had to pay attention to predators and prey to figure out their patterns and act accordingly. This learning meant life or death. Most of us do not face this type of predation in the 21st Century. However, that does not mean you can’t get students to pay attention. If you focus on how to get students’ brains to release dopamine, you will be able to sustain their attention for longer periods of time.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that is involved most in gaining attention. It is the sensation that is felt in the moment of reward, relevance, and novelty. Attention is gained when we are open, curious, in a goal focused state, and/ or working to gain something. [2] The bottom line is that the learner needs to see the value in what you are teaching. No value. No attention.



Magicians have a lot in common with neuroscientists. They both understand how attention is gained and controlled through use of attention manipulation. Teachers should study what magicians do to gain attention because they have mastered how our brain focuses on something. In their case it is to perform a trick, but the same principles can be applied to gaining attention. These are not only used by magicians, but are backed by scientific research on the human capability for attention.

  1. The Myth of Multitasking

People can only focus on one thing at a time. They ignore almost everything else.

Magicians understand this principle. That is how they can perform illusions. They determine where the attention needs to be when performing a trick. Think about it as shining a spotlight on something. Try to remove all distractions from what you want the students to focus on in class.

Students will not learn if they are not paying attention. The reason is that focusing on multiple streams of information decreases firing of neurons. Therefore, focusing on multiple things leads to significant decreases in learning.[3] Multi-tasking is therefore a myth. You need to help the students make connections by making sure they are paying attention. Thinking about the game plan for the day, remember to make sure that you are not going against their natural brain process of remaining attentive.

  1. Motion Attracts Attention

When a magician wants to get your attention, they will employ movement of hands, objects, or themselves. Standing in one spot will eventually cause the students to become desensitized to your presence if you are lecturing. In our prehistoric times, humans had focus on movement to determine if something was a threat or possibly food. Keep this in mind when you are trying to gain attention. Move around, move your hands, and rarely stay in the same spot when you want the focus to be on you.

  1. Big Motions Are More Important Than Little Motions

     Our brains pay much more attention to big motions and magicians use this to distract our focus. If you have any disengaged students, you can reengage by making large motions. Use bigger motions to attract attention to what you need the students.  We pay particular attention to curved motions.  Straight motions will not engage us as well.


  1. We Are Attracted to Novelty

People are attracted to novelty. When something unusual appears in our visual field, we are drawn to it. Under the best conditions, students can be expected to pay attention to instruction only about 3/4 of the time.[4] However, we are predisposed to pay attention to novelty. Our tribal ancestors had to pay attention to novel things in their environment to survive. “Regardless of who you are, the brain pays a great deal of attention to these questions: Can I eat it? Will it eat me? Can I mate with it? Will it mate with me? Have I seen it before?”[5]

According to Hardiman (2010): “Based on the method and frequency of the presentation, memories consolidate as the brain reorganizes, modifies, and strengthens synaptic connections among neurons… when information moves from working to long-term memory systems, new proteins are created… Effective teaching can result in biochemical changes in the brain.” [6]


  1. Engage the Power of Mirror Neurons

         Mirror Neurons are a relatively new discovery that took place in Parma, Italy. The Italian scientist Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered that the same neurons that were firing in a monkey performing a task were firing in a monkey observing the action. That means that perception and action mirror each other when we watch someone doing something.[7] The human brain reached its current size about 200,000 years ago and mirror neurons helped humans to develop language, culture, imitation, the ability to read people’s mind, and empathy.

Cultivating the development of skills and habits depends on our capacity for imitation. Imitation is made possible by mirror neurons. Therefore, when we model a process or show a video on how to do something, our brain is recreating the action as if the person watching was doing the activity.[8]


  1. You Have 10 Minutes.

Magicians constantly talk and engage the audience in conversation while they are performing tricks. The constant chatter distracts the brain from what the magician is doing to create the illusion. However, think about the reverse. If you are talking too much, then you are distracting the students from focusing on what they need to learn. This is very frustrating from the students’ view. You really only have ten minutes.

Lecture for more than that and the students’ brains have switched off. e will get more into the optimal lesson plan later in this book, but remember you have 10 minutes to make your point. You must reengage every 10 minutes or simply make sure you stop lecturing after 10 minutes and have them do something.[9] In other words you have to hook them back in to what your saying.

7. Self Control is a Limited Resource

As of the current writing of this chapter, there is not a scientifically accepted reason for the 10 Minute Rule, but it may have to do with the fact that self control has been proven to be a limited resource (under most conditions).[10] Especially if the task is difficult, remember that asking students to go against their natural wiring will result in diminishing returns in the classroom.

8. Hook Their Emotions

After 10 minutes, you have to hook the students back in to the content or activity. Hooks allow the brain to perk up and think something important is coming. This narrows the focus onto what is about to occur.

Successful hooks usually have the following three qualities[11]:

  • Triggers an emotional response (such as a personal narrative)
  • Relates to the topic
  • Fits between 10-minute modules (summarizes the previous module or teases the next module)

Emotions are particularly important for gaining attention. Studies show the correlation of vividness of a memory and the emotionality of the original event is 0.9.[12][13] That means that the emotions that are stimulated, the higher the chance of remembering the event.


9. Contrast: The Disrupt Then Reframe Strategy

A strategy to gain attention is the use of contrast. This could include: altering the physical environment, using novelty (props, jokes, etc.), changing voice tone or tempo, staging an unexpected event, arousing curiosity through questioning, or using other movements or sounds.

Using contrast as an attention getting technique is very effective especially if you use it as a “disrupt-then reframe” strategy. The DTR strategy is when you make a statement that goes off the normal track of how the other person thinks. Then make a rational-sounding statement that makes apparent sense and leads the other person to agree to your request. This technique has been effective in multiple studies for influencing people to purchase items.

One famous study had people try to sell a card for charity. The first group said “It’s only 3 dollars, which is a bargain,” and the second group said, “It’s 300 pennies. That’s 3 dollars, which is a bargain.” Results from the study showed that sales almost doubled in the second group.[14] Other studies have shown success using the DTR technique to increase sales at a supermarket, to influence students to pay to join a student interest group, and to increase support for student tuition.[15] This works because by contrasting what people normally would hear in a certain situation to another statement ($3 vs. 300 pennies) it creates ambiguity in the brain. Brains do not like ambiguity. “As the need for cognitive closure (NFCC) increases, consumers “seize” on information that facilitates the prompt attainment of cognitive closure, such as unambiguous, early, salient, accessible, or easy-to-process information that has direct and obvious implications for judgment and behavior… they “freeze” on their judgments by holding them with a high degree of confidence and by refraining from considering additional evidence that could potentially threaten closure.”[16]

Example to use in the Classroom

“I need 600 seconds of your time. That’s five minutes, it will be short.”

10. Cues.

When teachers want to gain attention they need to do so through cues or signals. Nonverbal cues, rather than verbal, are the best because it takes a lot less time for our brains to process. This could include ringing a bell, buzzer, or a gesture (such as holding hand high overhead and waiting for students to do the same). All of these create an emotional response. However it has to be taught, practiced and evaluated to make it become automatic.

“Emotions give us a more activated and chemically stimulated brain, which helps us recall things better”.[17] Students will simply not pay attention to boring things. Especially in the 21st Century, where everything is clamoring for attention on multiple devices it is important for teachers to learn how to keep attention and engage students.


[1] Yorzinski,, J., Penkunas, M., Platt, M., & Coss, R. (2014). Dangerous animals capture and maintain attention. Evolutionary Psychology, 12(3), 534-548.

[2] Davachi, L., Kiefer, T., Rock, D., & Rock, L. (2010). Learning that Lasts Through AGES. Neuroleadership Journal, (3).

[3] Arnsten, A. F. T. (1998). The biology of being frazzled. Science,280, 1711-12.

[4] Banikowski, A. K. (1999). Strategies to enhance memory based on brain research. Focus on Exceptional Children, 32(2)

[5] Medina, J. (n.d.). Attention | Brain Rules |. Retrieved November 28, 2014, from

[6] Hardiman, M. (2010). The brain targeted teaching model. New Horizons for Learning, 8(1),

[7] Lieberman, M. (n.d.). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. p.132

[8] Lieberman, M. (n.d.). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. p. 134

[9] Medina, J. (n.d.). Winning the Battle for Students’ Attention 10 Minutes at a Time. Retrieved November 27, 2014, from

[10] Muraven, M., Tice, D., & Baumeister, R. (1998). Self-control As A Limited Resource: Regulatory Depletion Patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 774-789. Retrieved December 14, 2014, from for class/Muraven self-regulatoin.pdf

[11]Medina, J. (n.d.). Winning the Battle for Students’ Attention 10 Minutes at a Time. Retrieved November 27, 2014, from

17 Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind (2nd ed.). Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


[14] Davis, B., & Knowles, E. (1999). A Disrupt-then-reframe Technique Of Social Influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 192-199

[15] Kardes, F., Fennis, B., Hirt, E., Tormala, Z., & Bullington, B. (2007). The Role of the Need for Cognitive Closure in the Effectiveness of the Disrupt‐Then‐Reframe Influence Technique. Journal of Consumer Research, 377-385.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Jensen, E. (2008, February). A fresh look at brain-based education. Phi Delta Kappan,


[1] Medina, J. (n.d.). Winning the Battle for Students’ Attention 10 Minutes at a Time. Retrieved November 27, 2014, from

[2]Medina, J. (n.d.). Winning the Battle for Students’ Attention 10 Minutes at a Time. Retrieved November 27, 2014, from

[3] Banikowski, A. K. (1999). Strategies to enhance memory based on brain research. Focus on Exceptional Children, 32(2)

[4] Medina, J. (n.d.). Attention | Brain Rules |. Retrieved November 28, 2014, from

[5] Hardiman, M. (2010). The brain targeted teaching model. New Horizons for Learning, 8(1),

[6] Jensen, E. (2008, February). A fresh look at brain-based education. Phi Delta Kappan,

[7] Banikowski, A. K. (1999). Strategies to enhance memory based on brain research. Focus on Exceptional Children, 32(2)


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