How to stay focused in college classes

Learn how to tackle distractions, prepare your mind and maintain your focus throughout your time at college.

Clock 4 min read Calendar Published: 23 Feb 2022
Author Abby Driver
How to stay focused in college classes

Can you lose yourself in a novel for hours? How about watch a film, without checking your phone? For many of us, staying focused is a challenge.

If you struggle, you’re not alone. There are all sorts of contributing factors undermining our ability to concentrate, from the rise of personal tech and social media to societal pressure to always be ‘on’ and available.

It’s been an especially challenging period recently, with some two years of varying degrees of social isolation, uncertainty and stress. It's perhaps not surprising then, that many report feeling overwhelmed and unable to focus. There's even a name for it: pandemic brain.

But the good news is, you can change your brain and relearn how to focus. In this blog post we’ll take a look at what focus actually means and understand why we often drift off in class. We’ll finish by looking at some strategies and lifestyle changes you can make to help improve your focus.

What exactly is focus?

Focus is your ability to concentrate your interest on a particular thing. In this case, your college class. You can innately sense when you are focused; you’re fully engaged, paying attention and the world beyond what you are focused on appears to retreat.

Why can’t I focus in class?

While most of us are capable of focusing, losing focus or drifting off in class is a common occurrence. Unfortunately, its negative consequences are twofold. First off, you may miss important information for the duration you’ve drifted off. And as well as that, studies have found it takes a significant amount of time to refocus once your concentration has been broken. One study, in which researchers shadowed employees, found that after they’d been interrupted it took an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.

But why exactly do we drift off?

Many of us think we can do two things at once, otherwise known as multitasking. And while you can technically ‘do’ two tasks at once, you can't concentrate on both. You could try to listen to your lecture and scroll your phone, but ultimately, you’re either focused on your Instagram feed or your professor.

Despite us knowing that - and having plenty of lived examples of the failure of this strategy to draw upon! - we continue to try and make it work. Unfortunately, it is doomed to fail. So, it’s time to give up multitasking and learn some new strategies to stay focused…

How to stay focused in college classes

In this section we’ll take a look at some strategies you can try in the moment during class to help you focus, as well as some more general lifestyle changes that will support your ability to concentrate.

Tips to stay focused in class

1. Get rid of distractions

Given what we know about multitasking, it goes without saying that you need to remove any and all distractions. To work out what constitutes a distraction, pay attention to yourself once you realise you’ve drifted off and notice what you’re doing instead. Are you checking your phone? Staring out of the window? Chatting with a friend? Whatever it is, remove your ability to be distracted by it. That could mean turning your phone off, sitting at the front of class or sitting next to your most serious friends only.

How to stay focused in college classes

2. Participate in class

Where appropriate, get involved. Instead of sitting passively and letting the class wash over you, make an effort to participate in any discussion and ask questions. Even if you don’t say much, just having a goal to speak up will make you pay more attention to what your professor is saying.

3. Take notes

Taking notes is another way to switch from being a passive listener to an active participant. Making notes forces you to pay attention to what is being said, process it and condense it. Not only will this keep you focused, but it will also help you to remember what is being said. Using notetaking software like Glean, which records lectures and allows you to make simple notes, can help.

Lifestyle tips to improve focus

1. Eat and drink before class

It sounds so simple, but getting the basics right before you head to class can make a big difference to your ability to concentrate in it. Ideally you should be well hydrated and nourished before heading to class. Try taking a water bottle and simple, quiet snacks like a banana in your bag for emergency situations. If it sounds too simple, dig into the research on the link between taking care of our basic needs and cognitive function. For example, studies have found judges are more lenient towards criminals after their lunch break.

2. Get enough sleep

A bad night is enough to throw your ability to focus out of whack, so if you have trouble focusing, prioritise shuteye. Screens, like laptops and smartphones, emit blue light which interferes with your body’s natural ability to wind down before bed. Given 91% of college age people use their devices before bedtime, this is a simple place to start. If you can’t avoid technology before bed, try wearing blue light blocking glasses or fit your screens with blocking filters.

3. Exercise in-between classes

Exercise is strongly linked with an increased attention span. According to an article published in Harvard’s Health Blog:

Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.

It may be especially useful for breaking up long days of lectures, too. A study of school children found that breaking up lessons with 20 minutes of aerobic exercise measurably improved their attention spans. Next time you have a few minutes between class, swap the coffee shop for a brisk walk and reap the rewards.

4. Find your motivation

If you are struggling to pay attention in a particular class, it is worth exploring your reasons for being there in the first place. Once you can get clear on the ‘why’, you’ll find yourself more motivated to actually pay attention in class.

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