By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.
I once fell asleep during a high-level college chemistry class. Not drowsy, not just blinking really slowly, but straight out asleep. I slept so hard that I only woke up when other students were climbing over me after class. It wasn’t until later that day that I looked in the mirror and saw blue pen on my face from falling asleep on my notes. I was cool. So cool.
Don’t be me. Don’t fall asleep in class.
Honestly though, falling asleep in class was never really my thing. I did it that once because I had a bazillion things going on and I hadn’t slept and yada yada, but staying awake was never really an ongoing struggle for me.
But knowing how to stay FOCUSED in class is different, and that is something that everyone struggles with at some point during school. And I’m assuming that might be you if you’re reading this.
What I’m referring to here is the common problem of “zoning out” when the teacher is talking – when your eyes are open but nobody is home, as the expression goes.
There are many reasons why you might zone out during class. Maybe you don’t find the material interesting. And I get that. Even as an adult I find it challenging to focus on something that isn’t my favorite.
If you’re in middle school or high school, it’s unlikely that you have too much control over the classes you take so the harsh truth is that you’re going to have to make it work. You’re going to have to figure it out. You’re going to have to find a few tricks that will help you concentrate when you’re just about to check out. That’s what this post is about.
But before I give you my tips for how to stay focused during class, I have to say that if your concentration difficulties are due to undiagnosed ADD or ADHD, then my advice might not be enough for you – you might have to work with a specialist to find a supplementary treatment plan. Here are some excellent focus tips that you might find helpful.
How to stay focused in class: 7 tips
1. SIT IN THE FRONT.
It’s not earth-shattering to know that sitting in the front of the classroom can increase your concentration due to a) hearing the teacher better, b) not being allowed to goof off, c) fewer distractions in front of you and d) a zillion reasons more. So find a seat in the front and get comfortable. For some reason, this simple strategy can be really effective at helping you stay focused.
2. TAKE DETAILED NOTES.
If you’re not confident in your note-taking skills, then watch my video/read about how to take notes during a lecture class. But even if taking notes isn’t required for a class, take notes anyway as a way to stay awake, alert and focused. If your goal is to take solid, clean, neat notes, then you’ll be forced to concentrate on what your teacher is saying.
3. ASK QUESTIONS.
Participate in class whenever you can – either by raising your hand to comment or to ask a question. (Tip: You can even ask a question you already know the answer to if you’re desperate for a way to participate and don’t have a real question!) Aim to contribute at least three questions or comments during the class, and keep track of each time you do so. Even just the act of keeping track of your comments/questions is sometimes enough to keep you alert. If you have trouble thinking of questions to ask, then you can always resort to asking why, how or what?
4. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.
Make sure you’re sleeping enough, eating good clean food, and drinking plenty of water. Dehydration can suck the life out of you, so don’t get to that point. Also, try drinking a full bottle of water throughout class. Drinking will help you stay focused, but also you’ll eventually have to use the bathroom, and sometimes that little trip down the hall can revive your energy just enough to get you to the end of the class. If you have trouble falling asleep at night, try my 10 nighttime anxiety tips.
Some of you may rely on caffeine, but caffeine is not a healthy way to fix your concentration issues. If you like coffee because you like it, fine. But if you depend on caffeine to get through class, the danger is that you’re masking a bigger underlying issue. It’s like putting a band-aid on a stab wound – not going to work.
Also, exercise! Try to get some regular physical movement every single day. Maybe arrange your schedule to alternate high-energy classes with low-energy classes. If you don’t have control over your schedule, take the stairs or walk the halls as much as possible before class. Want to know what I do? Bathroom squats. Oh yes, they are exactly as they sound. Go into a stall and do as many squats as possible in 1 minute (not as you’re going to the bathroom, of course!). Works like a charm every single time. Don’t judge me.
5. BE PREPARED FOR CLASS.
This one is not always possible, but when it is, it works so well at helping you stay focused in class. Here is a full tutorial about how to prepare for a class. If you know what your class is going to be on, then try to get ahead by reading up on the material beforehand. For example, if you know you’ll be covering chapter 4 in Biology, then skim over chapter 4 the night before so you have a framework for the class. If you know you’ll be talking about the Civil War in history class, then do a little research (Google is fine) the night before. There’s something about understanding the material a bit before you hear it from your teacher that reduces the likelihood of zoning out. We perk up and pay more attention to things that are familiar because they take less effort to process. (That’s like, science.)
6. MAKE EYE CONTACT WITH YOUR TEACHER.
This may sound a little creepy, but there’s a scientific explanation here. Here goes: Eye contact can be a stimulant. Sounds odd, but when we look into another person’s eyes, our bodies release chemicals that increase focus, adrenaline and energy. (There are also some scenarios when eye contact can actually have a calming effect, which is cool, but that’s not really relevant here.) When my babies were, well, babies, I would sneak into their rooms and check on them at night. If they were awake, I would deliberately avoid looking deeply into their eyes because I knew that doing so would stir them up. So you don’t have to gaze into your teachers’ eyes, but just make contact every few minutes and let your body do its chemical thing.
7. DUMP YOUR BRAIN.
I talk about “brain dumping” in many of my other videos and in this detailed tutorial, so I’ll just give you the gist here: Write down absolutely everything that’s on your mind, from all the little stuff to the big stuff. Write down reminders, questions, tasks, things that are bothering you, everything. Once it’s on paper, it’s out of your head (at least temporarily). With fewer loose ends floating around your head, you’ll free up mental space to concentrate in class. Keep all your mind dumps in a designated notebook. During class, if a random and distracting thought pops up, write it down and quickly get back to focusing on class. If you’re fancy, you might like this notebook. If you’re not fancy, you might like these pocket-sized ones.
The bottom line is that we all zone out once in a while. Heck, I even lose focus when people are talking directly to me, like five inches from my face. Ha! But obviously, you have to make some changes to your school habits if you find yourself zoning out all the time – and especially if your lack of concentration affects your grades.