Does Mind-Wandering Harm Learning?

If you teach children for several hours a day, you just know that sometimes they’re with you…and sometimes not.

Side view of student girl enjoying summer breeze , smiling with eyes closed

They might be focused on your description of the “angle-side-angle” theorem; or, they might be thinking about the Oscars. (What a speech!)

So we might reasonably ask: “is their mind-wandering a problem? Do they learn less?”

We might be tempted by an uplifting answer: “mind-wandering allows students to make fresh and helpful connections.” If they link angle-side-angle to the Oscars, after all, they have made connections that will help them consolidate this new geometry information.

Or, we might be worried about a tough-minded answer: “it seems sort of obvious that if students aren’t focusing, they almost certainly aren’t learning.”

Which is it?

We’ve got a fair amout of research with adolescents and adults; for them, mind-wandering hampers learning.

But, what about younger students?

Pharaohs and Dinosaurs

As always, research details matter.

In this recent study, researchers asked 8-9 year olds to listen to two stories: one about pharaohs, the other about dinos.

These stories — about 12 minutes long — were interrupted every 90 seconds or so. The students answered whether they were …

… focusing on the story,

… thinking about something unrelated to the story (“It was fun being at the zoo yesterday”),

… thinking about their interest in — or abilities relative to — the story (“I’m not very good at this,” “I’m really interested in this”), or

… distracted by the environment (a slamming door).

Researchers also asked the students how interested they were in the content of the stories.

And — of especial interest — they measured the students’ understanding of the stories both immediately after the story and also one week later.

I’d Rather Know than Not Know

The results include lots of useful information: some surprising, some not.

First: unsurprisingly (to me), students who mind-wandered remembered less.

And, crucially, they remembered less both right away and AND a week later.

This point really matters. We know from Nick Soderstrom’s work that initial performance isn’t a reliable indicator of long-term learning.

If we had only short-term results, we might optimistically think that short-term memory problems would give way to long-term improvements.

But: nope.

Students who reported more mind wandering didn’t learn as much.

Second: surprisingly (to me), the students’ interest level didn’t matter.

That is: even the students who REALLY LIKE DINOS didn’t learn as much if they mind-wandered.

Interest doesn’t protect students from the dangers of mind-wandering.

Third: horrifyingly (to me), students lose focus roughly 25% of the time.

In this study, they spent…

… about 10% of their time thinking about something else (“the zoo”),

… about 10% of their time thinking about their ability/interest (“I bet I won’t remember this part”), and

… about 5% of the time distracted by the environment (the slamming door).

If we want students to learn 100% of the material, and they’re mentally elsewhere for 25% of the time…well, that distraction puts a firm cap on what they can learn.

To be clear: this study took place during the pandemic, so student were at home and participating on Microsoft Teams. We therefore can’t take this finding as an entirely reliable measurement of their off-task thoughts during class.

However, I honestly worry that they might be mentally off task even more during school hours. The average classroom has LOTS more people in it, and features fewer dinosaur videos…

Teaching Implications

I think this study (especially if others confirm its findings) encourages us to several tough-minded conclusions:

Mind-wandering really does interfere with learning.

It happens A LOT.

Students’ intrinsic interest doesn’t mitigate this problem.

Each of us will respond to those conclusions differently, but they do offer several suggestions:

First: reduce classroom distractions with energy and purpose.

Second: check for understanding even more frequently than we might think necessary. Doing so will a) help us know if they are mind-wandering, and b) help keep them focused.

Third: remain vigilant even if the topic seems intrinsically interesting. I might think that dinosaurs will keep students’ focus…but in this study they didn’t.

More broadly: I might spend some time looking in the mirror. How distracted am I? How much mind-wandering is a part of my thought routine?

After all: if mind-wandering hampers my own understanding, that result is as bad for me as much as for my students.

Cherry, J., McCormack, T., & Graham, A. J. (2023). Listen up, kids! How mind wandering affects immediate and delayed memory in children. Memory & Cognition, 1-17.

Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2015). Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science10(2), 176-199.

tags: category: L&B Blog

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