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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Go Fish

We are now teaching students with an attention span shorter than that of a goldfish.  We ourselves now have an attention span shorter than a goldfish.  Since 2000, the human attention span decreased 33%, from 12 seconds to 8 seconds.  It is no coincide that the first smartphones appeared in the 2000’s.  So, how do we motivate students to learn despite shortening attention spans?

This is what I am working on right now for my next article, Motivating Law Students, with the help of the empirical data from student focus groups. 

Right now, I am knee-deep in the literature.  Daniel H. Pink is right in Drive to say that motivation is complicated.  There are two types of motivation: intrinsic motivation (curiosity, engagement, etc.) and extrinsic motivation (grades, bar passage, jobs, etc.).  It turns out that intrinsic motivation is far more effective.  But, intrinsic motivation is also more finicky—the conditions have to be just right for students to feel intrinsically motivated. 

There are ways to build courses to bring out the intrinsic motivation in students.  And, I am intent on finding as many of them as possible.  I have some early ideas that are in line with the literature, which include feedback on assessments and autonomy, but I welcome thoughts in the comments.  

Posted by Margaret Ryznar on September 13, 2018 at 06:55 PM | Permalink


Hi Dan,

Yes, thanks for the clarification. I have become a big fan of Deci and Ryan, and have definitely been reading their work--too bad it's not in Lexis and Westlaw because it takes awhile to track down!

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Sep 25, 2018 5:13:51 AM

Hi Margaret

Sounds like an interesting project. My only comment would be that Dan Pink's work is a popularisation of Deci and Ryan's self determination theory. Over the last three decades their work has spawned a huge body of scholarly literature, across education, positive psych, creativity studies, and so forth. A simple google search will find more rigorous studies in the area of student motivation than Dan P's book. Not that there was anything wrong with that book, of course. He's great--he blurbed one of my books a while back :)


Posted by: Dan Hunter | Sep 24, 2018 6:51:04 AM

Thanks--that's very nice of you to say.

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Sep 16, 2018 5:42:27 AM

Margaret , it is simply great , that you help so students , and beyond the core of your duties it seems . You are a great woman , and great professor .

Posted by: El roam | Sep 15, 2018 6:12:19 AM

Hi all,

Thanks for all the links--these are great. I know that these links are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the debate on how long the human attention span is exactly, and whether smartphones have influenced it. But, we do know that the student's attention span is not going to be 2 hours (the length of an average law class) and that the professor is competing with smartphones and the internet during class (assuming there is no class tech ban). So, the professor needs to work against these facts and I think intrinsically motivating the student is a good way to do it.

As for why I care--every time I am in the audience of a seminar, CLE, panel, etc., I am reminded of what it is like to be the student--and how learning levels can be driven by the lecturer. Sure, I don't have the same extrinsic motivators that a law student would have, but intrinsic motivation goes a long way.

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Sep 15, 2018 2:03:20 AM

Why do you feel it is your responsibility to stimulate a student's intrinsic motivations? If the drive to become a lawyer and spend $50K per year in tuition is not motivation enough...

Methinks it would be better if law professors professed the law rather than try to manipulate the psychology of their students. If the students have psychological infirmities that will detract from their ability to practice law, they should seek psychological help, or a different vocation.

Posted by: Phil | Sep 14, 2018 2:37:48 PM

What does it mean to say that the average attention span is 8 seconds?

Posted by: Asher | Sep 14, 2018 2:20:07 PM

A little cold water on the attention span issue from the BBC:


and from one of the more interesting psychologists researching learning (and debunker of the "learning styles" in education) Daniel Willingham:


Worth a look. Interesting topic.

Posted by: Steve | Sep 14, 2018 9:08:25 AM

Margaret ,

Check out ( just for the strategic understanding ) the :

" Brains of Buddhist monks scanned in meditation study "

Here :


And when I write " partly " in my first comment , I mean rather :

Simultaneously ( almost simultaneously ) .


Posted by: El roam | Sep 14, 2018 4:39:05 AM

Important post Margaret . So if you are aware to the smart phone impact , you need to think of solution based on it . Working more with PC , or laptop . Those devices , increase attention typically . For you are concentrated only , solely , and solitary on it , instead of partly clicking on the phone , and partly chatting at the same time , what forms pathology in time .

Check out meditation of all sorts . Can be very helpful .

Check out the Neuroscience . Neuroscience , that is to say , neurological and anatomical aspects concerning concentration in your case . Diagnosis today , is very advanced ( check out Neuroimaging , through FMRI ) . There are neuro equipments helping and relaxing the mind . Check out for example , the "Binaural beats ",and the headphone of course here :



There are more , maybe later ....


Posted by: El roam | Sep 14, 2018 3:58:22 AM

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