How Can You Help Your Students To Be More Focused?

Do your students feel anxious, stressed, and overworked? Are they not focused on you and your class? Have you tried to help but feel progress has slowed? I have felt stretched too thin by trying to cover it all and pushed students without progress.


I have recently started reflecting on my teaching by asking, what is essential? Deciding on my essentials has made me a happier teacher with more focused and successful students.


All teachers should ask themselves 1 question, what is essential? Answering this can make you more effective and your teaching more valuable. Students will be more focused and successful.

This is not a guide on how to fit more in the time, this is how to reduce and focus our teaching to what is essential. We can do this by thinking deeply about what we decide to teach and what we ask our students to do.


Reasons Why I Chose The Essentials


For many years, I assigned nightly reading questions and a test at the end of a unit. I would cram as much content as I could into these nightly assignments. I would also equally cover as much as I could in class. My goal was to expose the students to as much as possible. I traded quantity over quality. I promoted the idea that busy was good. And more was better. More assignments, more readings, more writings. More is not better. Focused is better.


My daily life consisted of some lecture mixed with readings and activities. I now realize that most of what I was assigning was meaningless. I traded quality for quantity and it cost me and my students. I lost quantity because the students only remembered 1/3 of what I taught. I also lost quality because I never went into anything in detail.


By asking, what is essential, we can filter out the learning distractions and focus us and our students on what is significant. For our students, some of the biggest learning distractions come from the sheer number of things schools and parents ask students to do.


Are your assignments essential?


What is essential for your students to complete? No, really ask yourself. What is essential for my students to grow?


Is it the essays you make them write? Or projects they create? Or the worksheets answering questions? Or the readings? I once heard a teacher say that they assigned 100 pages of reading a week to a 10th grade English class.


This was not an Advanced Placement class but a regular class of mixed ability students. They also mentioned that they assigned other worksheets too. They wanted to make sure they “covered it all”. For students, which of the assignments is essential? The reading or the other work for the class?


I have overlapped assignments countless times. I expected students to do both and do well on both. I should have predicted the results.

  • Most students completed one well
  • Some students completed both poorly
  • Few students completed both well



I set the students up for failure because I assigned too much with too little guidance as to what was important. I did not prioritize the assignments so the students chose based upon their own needs and wants. I was not happy with the resulting lack of student success. I assumed that I could teach it all, to assign it all. I was wrong.




What about other conflicts? Will students choose sports practice or extra help? Reading at night or social media? You want your students to make the right choice – the educational choice. But what if the choice is between history homework and English homework? We often force students to choose and then get angry at them for making the “wrong” choice. If we do not choose what are the essential for the students, they will choose themselves. This of course causes student stress, anxiety, frustration, and anger. All of it is directed at teachers for forcing them to make impossible choices.


Want to know if your students think your assignments are essential? As a test ask your students, What did you answer for question X on worksheet Z last week? If they can’t remember, try going broader, ask them, what was worksheet Z about?


Most students can’t answer that question even though they did the worksheet. Why? To them, it was nonessential. Most students can not remember because they are so overwhelmed by assignments. How many worksheets will students complete from pre-K to high school graduation? 100s? 1000s? Too many assignments can make students look busy but actually accomplish very little.


You Choose


There is hope though. The way, the only way, that you can help students to be more focused is to show them what is meaningful. You must choose yourself what the essentials are for your class. More importantly you must then communicate those essentials to your students. If the goals you set for students are sincere, obtainable, and clear, students will focus on them. Decide your essentials and eliminate everything else. 


Eliminate every other lesson, every other worksheet, every other test that is nonessential. Less but better. If you focus on the essentials of your teaching, students will too.


Additional Resources:

  • Formative Assessment and Standards-Based Grading: Classroom Strategies That Work
  • Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less


Question: How do you keep your students goal focused in your class? Let us know by posting your response in the comments below.

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