Precision guidance

Directing attention with gesture and more

Hey 👋

Hope you’ve got your haggis ready for Burns Night. This week we’re wrapping up our series on attention with a look at precision guidance

Big idea 🍉

What our students attend to is what they learn. Removing distractions, promoting participation, and optimising thinking time can help orchestrate attention…

However, while these techniques are pretty effective at generating attention, they don't always aim it with precision.

Which can be problematic when working with novices (as is the nature of education), who don't always know exactly what to attend to and when.... and because the process of searching for relevant information (and filtering out the rest) carries an attentional cost.

Precision guided approaches act as a kind of icing on the cognitive cake.

How can we precision guide attention? We can use...

  • The environment Dimming the lights and drawing the blinds can draw student attention to the board* (harnessing a kind of cinema effect).

  • Instructional tools We can use arrows, underlining, colours, frames, and even well timed pauses to draw attention to specific things at specific times.

  • Our bodies We can point, tap, or gesture to attract attention to important aspects of information or to help flesh out concepts.

Gesturing seems to be particularly powerful, because (A) students can benefit from a 'mirror neuron' type effect (where we learn as much from watching someone do something as doing it ourselves), and (B) relatively recent memory models (eg. Baddeley's multicomponent) suggest that we can process human movements with minimal additional attentional cost, and as such: get a kind of working memory boost.

Physical movement isn't just a useful tool for teachers—it can be helpful for students as part of the learning process too. For example, during discussions, gesture can act as a kind of external memory 'sketchpad' and help us better articulate our ideas. Or during practice, using symbolic gestures can support with retention and transfer.

Nuance → Gestures work best when they symbolically align with the concept itself... such as making horizontal hand movements when discussing distributions in statistics, or representing historical timelines by moving from left (past) to right (present), or tracing letters in the air during early writing.

Note → The effects of gesture seem to be greatest for demanding situations—such as when students with lower working memory capacity or prior attainment are at risk of cognitive overload—and so not only enhance learning but foster equality in the classroom.

[*In the future, every classroom will have a light dimmer switch by the board.]


  • If we want to fully optimise student attention, we've got to direct it with precision.

  • We can do this using our environment (lights), instructional tools (arrows), or our bodies (pointing).

  • Gesture can also help students to better articulate and consolidate their thinking.

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Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face.


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