Topic 2: Attention, Reward, and Motivation

Divided attention by Arthur I. Elsley
A grandmother reads to her granddaughter, but their attention is caught by two kittens playing with a piece of thread. Mezzotint after A. J. Elsley.

What do I need to know?

Neuroscientists think of attention as a largely unconscious cognitive process that happens automatically, involving many different brain areas.

There are different types of attention, and these include:

  • Selective attention, when a single thing is focused on.
  • Sustained attention, when focus is held for a period of time, enabling the completion of a task.
  • Alternating attention, which is the ability to switch between different tasks.
  • Divided attention, when more than one thing is focused on at once. This cannot happen for very long and is the highest level of attention.

These different types of attention mature at different ages, with selective attention developing during preschool, and divided attention maturing latest, around 16 years of age.

Multimodal presentations of information (where information is presented in more than one modality, for example talking while showing a diagram) can require divided attention. This may negatively affect learning, unless the two information sources are very closely aligned.

  • Motivation is the internal process that makes us move towards a certain goal or incentive, and away from something undesirable.
  • Anything that makes a behaviour more likely is a reinforcer. Learning occurs faster if a behaviour is reinforced. Reinforcers can be positive or negative.

A positive reinforcer could be a reward or a high mark. A negative reinforcer could be seeking to avoid boredom. Positive reinforcers are thought to be more motivating.

  • Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a chemical substance in the brain) that is critical for motivation.
  • When an unexpected positive reinforcer is present, dopamine levels increase within a brain pathway related to motivation. Increased dopamine in this pathway indicates to neuroscientists that uncertainty may be motivating, since the reinforcer was unexpected.
  • When peers are present, the brain shows a greater response to reinforcers, suggesting that learning with peers may be beneficial.

What can I do in my classroom?

  • Do something different to normal, perhaps using a striking picture, an unfamiliar viewpoint, or a thought-provoking question, to capture attention.
  • Reduce distractions in the classroom to help students to focus better on the task at hand, since their divided attention is likely still maturing.
  • Provide occasional breaks during the lesson so that students can rest and recover from the effort of attention.
  • Use positive reinforcement, like rewards, since negative reinforcement can increase stress and be less effective.
  • Involve team games that utilise both uncertain reward and peer presence, which may be motivating and therefore lead to better learning. Uncertain rewards could be variable amounts of points awarded for a correct answer during a team game.

What should I be wary of?

Unsubstantiated Claims – Sugar

  • Many people believe that sugar consumption reduces attention, but scientific research has found no evidence of a link.
  • There is also no evidence that sugar is particularly bad for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Find out more in this BBC article written by Claudia Hammond entitled “Does sugar make children hyperactive?”.

Credit: Neuroscience for Teachers: Applying Research Evidence from Brain Science by Richard Churches, Eleanor Dommett and Ian Devonshire.

Where can I find out more?

  • Digital Promise host short introductions to topics related to cognition and learning.
  • Professor Susan Gathercole and Dr Tracy Packiam Alloway have created a free online booklet called “Understanding working memory: A classroom guide”. The booklet describes how it may appear that a child is not paying attention, when they have actually forgotten the instructions. The booklet contains recommendations for teachers.
  • The Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation have funded a large-scale trial to investigate the impact of uncertain reward on secondary science learning:
    Engaging the brain’s reward system