This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on November 23, 2016. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
Many students don’t pay much attention in class. They come to class, but most of the time, only their bodies are present. When they study, that demanding task occurs as they attend to a host of other, often more engaging mental activities. It is a problem, but maybe our expectations are unrealistic. As Pachai, Acai, LoGiudice, and Kim (2016) say, “It is unreasonable to expect students to continuously pay attention while listening to a lecture, reading a textbook, or studying for an exam. The mind naturally wanders, shifting attention from the primary task at hand to internal, personally relevant thoughts” (p. 134). In fact, Pachai and colleagues estimate that our minds wander 30–50 percent of the time during our daily lives. It happens to teachers, students, and everybody else.
However, educational settings have features that make them ripe for mind wandering. Learning tasks are typically lengthy, and most are mentally taxing; both conditions are conducive to mental or mind wandering. Most students aren’t used to listening to someone speak for extended periods of time. Textbooks are long, generally with considerable new vocabulary and often on topics students don’t think of as interesting. It’s hard to stay focused on the reading. When there are only two or three tests in a course, they cover large chunks of content, which makes studying a formidable task. However, even though mind wandering should be expected, when the tasks involve learning and the mind is not focused on that task, the learning suffers. The authors note, “Attention is a limited resource necessary to maximize learning. Simply put, students cannot learn what they are not paying attention to” (p. 142).
Despite the importance of focused attention, mind wandering is not without benefits. Understanding these benefits begins with a bit of background. Mind wandering is mostly measured with thought probes. Subjects are listening, reading, or studying, and at various intervals they are asked to report what they were thinking about just before the probe. Increasingly the measurement involves technology: brain wave signatures that show up on EEGs or by visual attention. Research has established that when the mind wanders, the eyes blink significantly more.
Analysis of responses to thought-probe questions reveals many of the reported thoughts are future-oriented, primarily planning for things that need to be done in the future. In other words, it’s not always pointless mental meandering. Perhaps even more beneficial is work showing that enhanced creativity and problem solving stem from mind wandering. If there’s a break and then a task that’s not terribly demanding, mind wandering can creatively confront the larger, more complicated tasks. In other words, sometimes problems can be solved when the focus isn’t on solving them. In some research, when subjects returned from a break, they were able to generate more creative solutions. And finally, mind wandering can provide beneficial relief from boredom. It provides the short break needed to refresh and refocus. In this case it serves an adaptive function, “allowing one to continue an activity that has become tedious or uninteresting, but is nonetheless important to sustain” (p. 140).
The most useful part of this well-documented exploration of mind wandering are the authors’ four strategies for more effectively managing student attention in classrooms.
- Integrate “checkpoint” questions throughout lectures: Said differently, provide retrieval practice opportunities. Ask questions that require student to retrieve what they have just learned. If their minds have been wandering, they may have only learned part of the new information, learned it superficially, or learned it incorrectly. Retrieval practice is a chance to solidify their knowledge, pick up anything they missed, and correct something understood incorrectly. The reclaiming and reworking of new knowledge promotes long-term retention. Material should be chunked and separated with questions that require students to deal again with the material. This isn’t a new idea. It is something many faculty members already do, but it’s an approach that can be implemented more regularly and purposefully.
- Promote active learning through demonstrations, discussions, or other activities: This uses a range of instructional approaches and reduces mind wandering. When the action stops and something new starts, most wandering minds return. Some research documents that when students reported their own mind wandering, the amount of mind wandering decreased. Here too the suggestion is not new, and the active learning options are well known, but still there’s much teacher talk and a commensurate amount of mind wandering during lectures.
- Encourage students to try mindfulness meditation training through campus or online resources: Pachai and colleagues say, “Mindfulness meditation training is a promising solution to many issues of attentional and behavioral regulation” (p. 141). The supposition is that it reduces mind wandering by promoting awareness of the present. Students aren’t thinking about what’s ahead but are focused on what’s happening at the moment, and this awareness of the present makes for quicker returns from mental side trips.
- Allow students to mind wander when it will not significantly affect learning: This suggestion implies accepting the inevitable. Learners’ minds will wander so take action to control when that occurs. Let there be breaks and lower-stakes learning opportunities, which these authors describe as chances to relearn or review new information.
This is an excellent article. It proposes a realistic understanding of mind wandering. Mind wandering can’t be entirely eliminated. It should not be thought of as inexcusable and completely without merit. The instructional objective ought to be efforts aimed at doing what can be done to circumvent it when attention is most crucial for learning. And if your mind happened to wander while reading this, look again at this last paragraph, and you’ll have the essence of what you missed.
Pachai, A. A., Acai, A., LoGiudice, & Kim, J. A. (2016). The mind that wanders: Challenges and potential benefits of mind wandering in education. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2(2), 134–146.