Capturing the Attention of Students: Teaching with a Pandemic Playlist

Capturing the Attention of Students: Teaching with a Pandemic Playlist

By Christina H. Paguyo, Director of Academic Assessment

What do wearing raspberry berets, traveling the seven seas, and falling crazy in love have in common? In addition to making fantastic karaoke songs, these melodies grab our attention and linger years beyond their radio debuts.

In 2017, ex-Google Design Ethicist, Tristan Harris, wrote about the attention economy and argued that attention is the currency through which society functions. Take, for example, how legislators need our attention to win votes and athletes need our attention to play sports. Attention and its role in memory and learning has long been the topic of theory and empirical study (i.e. Baddely, 1993; Gagne, 1985) including, more recently, the influence of technology on attention (Lodge & Harrison, 2019). We know attention is needed for students to learn.

Our culture of instant gratification and instant information reduces attention spans because of how the human brain has evolved toward new and shiny novelties in order to survive (Duhaime, 2017). Thanks to smartphones and computers at our fingertips, our individual and collective attention spans are more ephemeral than ever.

Prolific scholarship confirms the relationship between attention and learning. In their book about How People Learn, Bransford and colleagues (1999) recommend a diversity of interactive activities––beyond lectures––to engage students. An inverse relationship exists between how long a professor lectures and how long students pay attention: the longer the lecture, the shorter the attention spans (Bunce, Flens & Neiles, 2010). If you are like most professors, delivering lectures might feel as comfortable as working remotely in the same pair of sweatpants, day in and day out, during the pandemic. (Not that I know anything about this). What is familiar for faculty, however, does not always translate to what is engaging and meaningful for students (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006).

How do we grab the attention of students on Canvas and Zoom? Here are five songs to add to your Pandemic Playlist, curated by yours truly, to invite a playful and experimental approach to online teaching:

  • No Satisfaction: Listen to the Rolling Stones to remember that students will get no satisfaction if online lectures stretch beyond 12 minutes. In this wonderfully instructive video, Academic Technology Specialist Alex Martinez and Graduate School of Social Work Professor Jae McQueen co-host a webinar about keeping students engaged and learning.
  • R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin sang truth to power when she belted out lyrics about respect. Here are some tips adapted from Sunal and Wright (2012) and Dixson (2010) about creating a respectful online instructor presence:
    • Look directly at the camera to make eye contact with students.
    • Provide frequent feedback to acknowledge the contributions of students.
    • Crowdsource ground rules to create an inclusively supportive and intellectually engaging learning space.
    • Explore how to build meaningful student-to-student interactions and student-to-professor interactions to cultivate community.
  • The Power of Yet: COVID-19 is generating a collective ethos of fear and discomfort that affects us in different ways. If you are feeling sub-optimally, we encourage you to pause and rejuvenate when possible. When you are ready to kindle hope and inspiration, watch Janelle Monae and our friends at Sesame Street to harness the power of yet.
  • Show Me: When Backstreet Boys cried about unrequited love, they wanted their romantic interests to show (not talk about) emotion. Whether you love or hate boy bands, there is wisdom and sweet simplicity to their lyrics. Consider piquing curiosity with visuals and photographs to help you show, not tell, stories and content you hope students will learn.

The opinions about music expressed herein are mine and mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of DU or the OTL. If you have questions about Canvas, Zoom, teaching, learning, assessment, or music that sparks joy, please contact us. The OTL has your back with every breath you take and every step you make. In a non-stalkerlicious way, of course.


Baddeley, A. D. (1993). Working memory or working attention? In: Baddeley A., & Weiskrantz L. (Eds.), Attention: Selection, awareness, and control, (pp. 152–170). Oxford: Clarendon.

Bunce, D.M., Flens, E.A., & Neiles, K.Y. (2010). How long can students pay attention in class? A study of student attention decline using clickers. Journal of Chemical Education, 87(12).

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and schooling. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Dixson, M.D. (2010). Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging? Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 1-13.

Duhaime, A-C. (2017). Our brains love new stuff, and it’s killing the planet. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Gagne, R. (1985). The Conditions of Learning (4th Ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Harris, T. (2020). How do you ethically steer the thoughts and actions of two billion people’s minds everyday? Retrieved from

Lodge, J. M., & Harrison, W. J. (2019).  The role of attention in learning in the digital age. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 92(1), 21-28.

Roediger, H.L., & Karpicke, J.D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249-255.

Sunal, C.S. & Wright, V.H. (2012). Online learning. In Seel N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Boston, MA: Springer.