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, researchers scrutinized all the (over three million) “strikes” and “balls” signaled by Major League Baseball (MLB) umpires from 2008 to 2018. That was about 26,000 games!

The umps had to decide in an instant if a pitch, often traveling faster than 90 miles per hour and not in a straight line, was inside or outside of a batter’s strike zone.

The researchers determined that the accuracy of the umpires’ calls was pretty good. They called the pitches correctly 88 percent of the time and got them wrong 12 percent. In the 2018 season, MLB umpires made 34,246 incorrect ball and strike calls for an average of 14 per game, or 1.6 per inning.

What is 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. However, immediately after these pivotal moments, umpires made notably more errors. The umps varied the effort they applied to individual decisions, applying greater attention to those associated with higher stakes.

The increase in umpire errors supports the idea that humans have only so much attention span, and that it can be lessened after a period of intense effort or concentration.

The good news is that we can quickly reset our attention durations. There was no increase in errors after the end of each half-inning when umpires took a two-minute break. So, even short rest periods can replenish attention spans.

These findings could easily apply to education because paying attention is essential for learning. Student attention spans similarly wax and wane throughout the school day, and well-timed short breaks could benefit students.

Another study 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.

Attention span is an important but often overlooked aspect of teaching and learning. Mental breaks may hold great promise in education as a way to replenish attention.

For a young student, keeping still and focusing on an object for some time is difficult. He should be expected to work at a task at his table for as long as fifteen minutes, but usually only when he can alternate sitting and standing during that time. As children get older, attention spans should increase.

However, many classroom teachers often exceed 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.

This baseball study shows that the length of a person’s attention span isn’t fixed, but constantly fluctuating—longer in the morning, or shorter after a stressful event (i.e., a test).

It’s a fascinating line of research, and if teachers and parents get better at recognizing the importance of periodic “brain rests” (resets), it could be an educational home run… or at least a base hit.

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