Conflicting Advice: Mind-Wandering Is Bad, or Just Fine

The Harvard Gazette recently posted a soothing headline: “When Wandering Minds are Just Fine.”

mind wandering advice

The subhead offers even more encouraging news: “The practice has no detrimental effects in some situations, study says.”

No detrimental effects. That sounds kind of great.

It also sounds a bit confusing. Here’s the title of another recent journal article:

Mindwandering While Reading Not Only Reduces Science Learning But Also Increases Content Misunderstandings.”

So: which is it? Mind wandering is just fine? Or, mind wandering hampers learning and creates misunderstandings?

Mind Wandering Advice, Part 1: Consider the Paradigm

These two studies arrived at dramatically different conclusions because they studied dramatically different situations.

In the language of psychology, they used different research paradigms.

One study had students read a science passage, and then write about the information and concepts they had learned.

The other study had participants look at a clock and press the space bar whenever it showed exactly 12:00. The clock was designed to show 12:00 every twenty seconds.

Now: which one of those two studies sounds more like the work you do every day?

Mind Wandering Advice, Part 2: Focus on Your Students

Given that these two studies consider such different activities, we can easily decide which one applies to us. Focus on the study that resembles your students’ work.

For the most part — I suspect — we’re interested in the research about students who read the science passage. After all, that study looks a lot like school.

In that study, researchers found that students who spent more time mind-wandering learned less science.

They also held on to more misconceptions about the science that they studied.

In brief: mind wandering harms much of the work that students do in school.

MWA, Part 3: Don’t Panic

At the same time, the 20-second-clock study can also give us some useful parameters.

That study makes a simple point. Sometimes — when the clock is approaching 12:00 — we need to focus clearly. Other times — when we’ve got 10-15 seconds to go — it’s just fine to mind wander a bit.

So: if your students can confidently predict when they’ll need to refocus, you don’t need to worry if they take some mental time off.


To explore this question further, you might look at Kevin Kent’s article called Drifting Away. In it, he explores the settings where mind-wandering just might benefit learning.

tags: category: L&B Blog

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