Losing Focus? How to be an Active Learner

When I decided to return to college, I knew it would have to be online–not only was I a full-time mother who could not afford daycare, I also had a husband whose work schedule was so crazy that I could never take night classes. Weeks into my first semester at Penn State World Campus, I began to struggle with focus and feeling lazy.

Like classes on-campus, online students must dedicate a significant amount of time to reading and sitting through lectures (written or oral). Unlike on-campus classes, however, we do not have to walk from class to class or sit through a 45-minute lecture before moving on to another class/activity. Instead, we have to fit all our schoolwork into an allotted amount of time each day, which often means those precious hours are spent diligently focused on a textbook or computer screen, trying to get as much done as possible in order to meet daily and weekly goals/due dates.

If you are like me, working hard to complete assignments has equaled a sore back, mental exhaustion, stiff legs and crackly fingers. After some time dealing with such aches and pains, I decided I needed to reinvent my online-student self! Rather than spend hours at a time on the computer, often ‘zoning’ out and losing focus, I take short breaks every 30 to 60 minutes.

This, for me, involves getting out of my computer chair (after checking Facebook) and walking away from the computer screen for a few minutes. Sometimes I stretch, other times I do a silly dance or run from my bedroom to the living room (we have a long hallway!). This activity allows me to feel refreshed and able to fully absorb the information I am taking in; it also helps me to feel less like my body is slowly melting into my chair.

Spending all day doing schoolwork? Take an hour-long walk outside midday. Scientific studies have provided evidence that walks (particularly nature walks) improve focus and learning in students. The “attention restoration theory,” or ART, says that the natural world engages your attention in a bottom-up manner and also allows your mind to relax.

We are all capable of working and studying hard–that is why we can take classes online. But, if you want to maximize your time, restore focus, and even get some exercise, take breaks!

(Still wondering if taking a break is worth your time? Check out this academic article on the effects of task interruption on memory.)