When I was a kid, I guess I often stared off into the middle distances. My parents would bring me back to reality with the comment “A penny for your thoughts”. This was a simple gentle prod to the fact that I was daydreaming. Years later, I look out at my classes and am tempted to use the same prod. Not for the occasional student texting, but for those who minds seem anywhere but on the material I am covering.
Three recent papers on mind wandering make for some timely reflection on this topic (see Seli, Risko & Smilek, 2016; Wammes, Boucher, Seli, Cheyne, & Smilek, 2016; Wammes, Seli, Cheyne, Boucher, & Smilek, 2016).
Mind wandering takes place when you shift your attention away from a task you are focused on externally to muse internally. Over the years a large body of research, well reviewed in the three articles mentioned, shows:
- on lab tasks minds wander about 45% of the time as measured by a thought probe method (I know, that sounds like something aliens do to abductees),
- attention wanes about 30 minutes into a lecture (hey, I have longer than I thought).
- in a daily life study using mobile phones to randomly access thoughts, the average person’s mind wanders 47% of the time (add that to texting and walking)
- in class studies, students are inattentive anywhere from 28% to 60% of the time depending on what study you look at.
The new studies present perhaps the most detailed look at this phenomenon by virtue of some robust research designs. What jumped out at me is the importance of separating intentional from unintentional mind wandering (Seli et al., 2016). I also love how unintentional is defined – mind wandering despite best intentions to focus on the lecture. I guess in the first case you go, “I know this stuff, let’s think about what I can buy my partner for her birthday.” In the latter case after a period of thinking about gift buying you realize the instructor is talking to you and you have missed the last X minutes of lecture. Penny for your thoughts.
The two studies by Wammes and colleagues are based on an examination of 154 students over the course of a 12-week semester. This is unique as prior studies either only took place in a lab or at most sampled thoughts in a 50 minute class. Here they collected over 5000 individual observations of mind wandering every day of every week of the semester. Wow, that’s a whole lot of data.. The take home points. Mind wandering:
- Occurs on average (only) 33% of the time with 19% of it intentional, 14% unintentional (see Fig above)
- Peaks during the third quarter of a lecture
- Happens more on Mondays and Fridays and least on Wednesdays
- Peaks the last 25% of a semester
As someone who cares about cultivating learning, I honed in on the findings related to retention of information. Three big results here (and see the graph to left):
- Intentional mind wandering (not unintentional) was related to poorer quiz scores
- Unintentional mind wandering (not intentional) was related to poorer exam scores.
- Mind wandering is a significant predictor of exam scores separate from the usual suspects of GPA and attendance.
Quick quiz for you: I just told you that mind wandering is highest a) the 1st , b) the 2nd , c) the 3rd , d) the 4th quarter of the semester? Not sure? Look a few paragraphs back. Maybe your mind wandered.
Ok, that was my subtle lead in to what to do about mind wandering–Anything to focus attention back on task. The simplest thing to do is a quiz. A short quiz (no clickers required) immediately helps bring attention back. For more details on how, see a neat study by Schacter and Szpunar (2015) where they interspersed quizzes to arrest mind wandering.
So yes, minds will wander. It’s not all bad. All mind wandering is not the same. And yes we can do something about it. That’s it. Wander on. Dollar for your thoughts.
[SHOW THESE IN CLASS: Instructors can access slides for class use here]