Photo By: Anastasiia Ivanova/Shutterstock.com

I remember when I was a kid, one of the very first things they taught us in school was how to pay attention. More than that, they taught us that it was rude not to pay attention and that people can tell when you’re not. 

To really look like you’re paying attention, you should be looking at the person who’s talking and you shouldn’t be doing anything with your hands; your complete and undivided attention should be on them.

Even still, in university, there’s a lot of focus placed on what exactly paying attention looks like. If you don’t look like you’re “listening attentively,” you might get called out in a lecture or even lose participation marks in a seminar. 

For some people, paying attention might in fact look like sitting still, facing forward and looking directly at whoever happens to be speaking. In an online class, you might indeed be able to pick out the students paying attention from the ones who are not by seeing who’s looking at their camera and nodding along. It’s also possible that you might be looking at someone who’s mastered the art of smiling and nodding while thinking about what they’re going to have for dinner. 

We all know that just because someone appears to be paying attention, it doesn’t mean they are. We have to get better at applying that same logic in reverse. Everybody’s brain works differently, for some people, listening effectively means doodling in the margins of a notebook, or fidgeting with something in their hands. I’ve even known people who genuinely absorb information best when they’re playing a game on their phone at the same time as they’re taking it in. 

I get it, it’s easy to feel like you’re being disrespected if you don’t think people are paying attention to you. The thing is, we’ve been taught what one way of paying attention looks like, we have to learn that there are others that might look different. 

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t pay attention in class, or that you should totally disrespect the people around you by tuning them out. What I do propose is that we all get better at realising that the act of paying attention can look different for everybody. It’s especially important to realise this in a university environment, where participation marks are often given not just based on your contributions to a conversation, but based on how focused your teaching assistant determines you to be to the entire class conversation.

Obviously, be respectful. If it’s helpful for you to play a game on your phone while you’re in class, sit at the back, don’t make noises that are going to distract the people around you, and if you’re in an online class, turn off your microphone. 

At the same time, while it might seem like a small thing, acknowledging the small ways in which people are different from one another can go a long way towards making life easier for all of us, especially in a learning environment.