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Home plate umpire Marvin Hudson called balls and strikes during a Major League Baseball game between the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants in 2017 in San Francisco, California. This call pictured above was one of more than three million umpire calls analyzed by researchers in a 2021 study finding that short breaks refresh an umpire’s attention span. Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Students may get in trouble for dreaming about baseball instead of paying attention in class. But the sport might help teachers find ways to keep kids focused. 

In a new study, a team of economists scrutinized all the “strikes” and “balls” shouted and signaled by Major League Baseball (MLB) umpires from 2008 to 2018. There were a lot of calls — over three million across more than 26,000 games — about whether a ball in flight, often traveling faster than 90 miles per hour, was inside or outside of a batter’s strike zone. 

Thanks to video technology called PITCHf/x, the economists determined the accuracy of the umpires’ calls. The umpires were pretty good. They called the pitches correctly 84 percent of the time and got them wrong 16 percent of the time. 

What’s interesting is how this accuracy fluctuated during a game. During a pivotal moment, say, when a pitch call could break a tie at the end of a game, umpire accuracy soared. 

“MLB umpires systematically vary the effort they apply to individual decisions, applying greater attention to those associated with higher stakes,” the economists from the University of Maryland, the University of Ottawa and Columbia University wrote in a paper about their analysis. (The Hechinger Report is an independent news organization based at Teachers College, Columbia University.)

However, immediately after these pivotal moments, umpires made notably more errors. The average umpire’s accuracy, normally at the 50th percentile, fell from a high of 73rd percentile at a pivotal moment to 45th percentile after the pivotal moment passed.

The increase in umpire errors buttresses the idea that humans have only so much attention span that can be depleted after a period of intense effort or concentration. 

The good news, according to this study, is that humans can quickly reset their attention spans. No increase in errors was detected after the end of each half inning when umpires take a two-minute break. “Even short rest periods can replenish attention budgets,” the economists concluded.

The study, “The Dynamics Of Inattention In The (Baseball) Field,” is a draft paper circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research in June 2021. It has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal and may still be revised.  

“This is not just a paper about baseball,” the authors emphasized and suggested that their findings on the fluidity of attention spans could be applicable to other fields, including education, since paying attention is so important for learning. Of course, these results would need to be replicated in classroom settings but there is reason to think that student attention spans similarly wax and wane throughout the school day and that well-timed short breaks could be beneficial to students.

A 2016 study of Danish students found that students who take tests later in the day performed worse “because over the course of a regular day, students’ mental resources get taxed.” However, a 20-minute break from mental work restored performance. That’s a considerably longer break than the two minutes umpires needed to refresh. Learning may be far more taxing to the brain than when an experienced professional conducts a repetitive task.

“Breaks may hold great promise in elementary education as a way to replenish attention,” said University of Maryland, Baltimore County, assistant professor Karrie Godwin, in an email interview. Godwin is a developmental psychologist who is currently studying short breaks in classrooms and investigating whether different types of breaks improve attention spans and achievement.

Attention span is an important but often overlooked aspect of teaching and learning. Attention deficit disorders are a giant practice area for psychologists but there is not a lot of research on how long students without disorders can reasonably be expected to pay attention to a lesson.

Educators often refer to a 10- to 15-minute attention span for students but it’s not clear where that estimate originally came from and if it was ever based on a well-designed experiment. Reading specialists dating back to the 1930s and 40s advised teachers to limit reading practice to this time frame. 

“For a six-year-old, immobilizing his body and regarding an object fixedly with his eyes for a period of time is a difficult task, tedious and tiring,” wrote Gertrude Hildreth in her 1950 book, Readiness for School Beginners. “A child of this age can be expected to work at a task at his table for as long as fifteen minutes, but usually when he can alternate sitting and standing during the time.”

Some experts believe that attention spans could be much longer than 15 minutes, depending upon the age of the student and what is being taught.

More recently, in a 2016 study, Godwin calculated that classroom teachers were commonly exceeding young children’s attention spans by lecturing too long and having students spend too much time on instructional activities. Students went off task more often as an instructional activity increased beyond 10 minutes. 

What this latest baseball study shows is that the length of a person’s attention span isn’t fixed but constantly fluctuating. Maybe attention spans are longer in the morning and shorter in the afternoon. Maybe students can focus for a solid hour in history class one day but arrive unfocused the next day if the class follows a math test.

Matching lesson plans to students’ attention spans is tricky because it depends on the individual student, what is being taught, how it is being taught and what the student did earlier in the day. Still, it’s a fascinating line of research and getting better at this could be an educational home run or at least a base hit.

This story about attention spans was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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  1. Hi, Jill. I liked your 3 strikes article and agree that breaks make a big difference for children’s attention span. I teach children with special needs. We work in 20 minute blocks with 5 minute breaks. They maintain a high level of concentration during learning throughout the day, factoring in sluggishness after lunch. There was some question that breaks child be beneficial to students. They are. Very much so.

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