Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | January 9, 2009

How to Study: Focus

“Why is it,” you ask, “that I have learned the mechanics of good note-taking, dedicated large amounts of time to studying, and still end up with less than satisfactory grades?”

The answer may be that you need to focus your attention better. 

Focused attention is the most important ingredient for academic success.  It is needed for three different time-frames: long-term, intermediate and short-term.  Long-term attention is required to attain goals that are several years ‘down the road’  (for example, a high school student’s goal to pursue a medical career requires that he or she stay focused on that goal through high school, college and medical school).  Intermediate-term attention is required for goals that are due in less than a few years, such as staying on track to graduate from high school.  Short-term attention is required for tasks you are currently doing, for example, reading an essay.  Poorly focused attention in the short-term is a culprit for causing disappointing grades because it lowers your studying efficiency.

Knowing the limits of your attention-span is especially important for short-term situations.  Your attention span is the length of time you can focus your attention before your mind starts to wander.  It makes no sense to spend three hours straight reading your history textbook if your attention span is only twenty minutes.  In that case, a more prudent strategy would be to take five-minute breaks every twenty minutes.

The first thing to note when trying to improve your attention span is that distraction and concentration are two different phenomena—though both involving attention—controlled by separate areas of the brain.  Distraction is “reflexive attention to sensory information”, for example, to a fire alarm.  Concentration is “willful goal-oriented attention”.   (Lauren Neergaard described research in this area, in the March, 29, 2006 USA Today article, “Separate brain areas rule concentration and distraction”.  )

The practical application is that improved focus requires control of two separate issues.  First, distractions need to be excluded or minimized.  You can greatly help yourself by doing your studying in a quiet place such as a library.  It is a good idea to develop a habit of being consistent in choosing a place to study. Also, you need to train yourself to ignore—i.e., to not pay attention to—extraneous “sensory information” that you cannot control (e.g., a tree’s branch tapping against a window pane, or friends conversing nearby). 

Second, you need to build up your ability to sustain concentration.  There are several ways to do this.  Playing games, for example, chess, is a good way to practice maintaining your attention (an online chess website is available here— ). 

Frequent sustained reading is another way to build your attention span.  Be vigilant while reading by asking yourself what you have just read every time you complete a page.  Reread that page if you cannot recall it.  (Those dry reading passages from the SAT are a good test of how well you can remain focused.) Kansas State University has a great webpage giving more detailed hints for building your attention span— .

You will find that staying focused requires much practice.  However, your study efficiency will improve, as will your grades, as you learn which things interfere with your concentration and control them.

For more information about focusing attention, see:

PBS Website, the Mind Misunderstood

Texas Woman’s Univ. website, How to Develop Better Concentration while Studying

Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, by Maggie Jackson

College Reading and Study Skills, by Kathleen T. McWhorter.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that “Mindfulness Training” can increase one’s ability to focus attention—

Also see:

How to Study:  Lighting the Fire

How to Study:  The Great Migration II

How to Study: The Great Migration I


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