University Writing Instructor Guidelines:
Tutoring Students with short attention spans
A. As the tutor, be a facilitator
Ask the student how he or she learns best. (What strategies has he or she
developed to help maintain focus, attention, interest, and ability to memorize
details? Ask students to describe a typical study period and what happens
when they lose focus.)
Remember that emotions are an important part of learning--ask students
what makes them frustrated and what they would most like to "master," and
work on these things. Emphasize their progress to help them gain confidence
and monitor themselves.
Help students break assignments and projects into small manageable parts
. This helps them to feel less overwhelmed (which can lead to avoidance--often
Set clear limits for each session and provide a clear structure ("first
we'll work on this, then we'll do this, and finally, we'll review what
we've done--how does that sound?"). Then stick to that structure unless
the student asks to work on something else. Repeat directions and remind
the student of the structure you have agreed on ("okay, so we've reviewed
the assignment, now we're going to discuss some strategies for free writing...").
B. Help students be managers of learning
If the student's attention wanders, change your focus, make a joke, or
just touch his or her shoulder. Humor is a great asset, but maintain a
balance between being strict and relaxed. If the student has clearly lost
focus, ask him or her to review what you have done so far. Then restate
the structure of the session, and move along with it. The more you notice
whether students are paying attention, the more connected they will feel
and the less their attention will wander (the same applies to yawning).
Encourage the student to develop a work schedule that he or she will be
able to stick to. Schedules are part of the prewriting-writing-rewriting
process and everyone needs to learn how long they can spend on each task
without ceasing to be productive.
At the end of each session or segment of the session, review what you have
done. Better yet, ask the student to review it and remind the student of
anything he or she has not included.
Try to think of mnemonic devices or "tricks" to help students memorize
new rules. Once the student gets used to the idea, you can work together
or making up mnemonics for each new rule, strategy, or process.
Teach students how to outline ideas and papers--no matter how short. Organization
C. Common areas of difficulty
Aim for quality not quantity of work--and remember to praise all advances,
no matter how small. A little positive reinforcement goes a long way.
1. Organization and planning
5. "Illogical" rules (try to explain why as well as what)
6. Self confidence
7. Self confidence
9. Self observation and evaluation
10. Self confidence!
Sandra Jamieson. 1997.
Adapted from Answers to Distraction E.D. Hallowell
& J. Ratey. (Pantheon, 1994)