Minimize mind wandering to maximize student learning

August 23, 2016 | Claudia Stanny

Minimize mind wandering to maximize student learning

 A human mind is a wandering mind. (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010)

 We are all susceptible to mind wandering or off-task thinking. Killingsworth and Gilbert developed an iPhone app to gather real-time data on mind wandering from an enormous sample (over 5000 people from 83 countries). The app polled participants at random times and sometimes asked Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing? Nearly 50% of the respondents in a sample of 2250 adults reported mind wandering and reported mind wandering during every type of waking activity except sexual activity. (Some apparently even responded to the app when it interrupted this activity.)


What are the consequences of mind wandering?

 Xu and Metcalfe (2016) presented Spanish-English word pairs for study on a computer screen and interrupted study trials every 15-90 seconds to ask students to report their attentional state (on task or mind wandering). When they tested students on the vocabulary items, students recalled more word pairs when they said they were on task while studying these pairsStudents’ worst recall was for word pairs they studied when they reported mind wandering. Other researchers report links between increased mind wandering and poor reading comprehension, poor memory for lecture material, lower exam and SAT scores, and reduced recall.


What contributes to mind wandering?

 Minds wander when people are bored, when they are fatigued, and when they are unhappy. However, maintaining attentional focus is not strictly a matter of motivation and will power. We are less likely to lose focus when tasks are interesting or pique our curiosity. Xu and Metcalfe (2016) report that challenging tasks can generate interest and inhibit mind wandering. Our thought drifts away from tasks that are too easy. However, our minds also wander when we face tasks that are extremely difficult (or impossibly challenging). We may be unaware that our minds have wandered until we have been off task for some time.


Advice for teaching

 Finding the “sweet spot” for learning requires instructors to determine their students’ current level of expertise. The level of a course in the curriculum (introductory, sophomore-level, junior/senior, or beginning graduate student) might be a good first estimate for the level of challenge required to engage students’ interest and minimize mind wandering. Assessments of students during the first week of class might also help develop a sense of entry-level skill for your course.

  • Consider the effects of fatigue on mind wandering. Extended time on tasks increases fatigue and will increase problems with mind wandering. Consider building in small breaks that create an opportunity for students to re-energize and refocus.



 Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330, ­932-932. Doi: 10.1126/science.1192439

Xu, J., & Metcalfe, J. (2016). Studying in the region of proximal learning reduces mind wandering. Memory & Cognition, 44, 681-695. doi: 10.3758/s13421-016-0589-8


tmd 08/23/16

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