Load theory can get a little bit technical, but the basic summary of the idea is that we are less likely to be distracted by something if our main focus is occupying more of our attention. Think of attention like a full pint glass. The capacity of the glass doesn’t change size, and neither does our attentional capacity. Also, the glass is always full; in other words we always fill out attentional capacity (we always take in as much information from the information as we can). If the main focus of our attention is not providing us much information, then we will take in information from other sources (i.e. potential distractions).
Imagine doing a spot the difference task with only three objects in the picture. You would likely find the ‘different’ object very quickly, and also very easily. You would probably also find that you don’t lose yourself in the task; you are still aware of background noises or movement in your surroundings. This is because the low level of attentional load in the task is not exhausting our attentional capacity (it doesn’t fill the pint glass), so we process other things as well. Now imagine a more difficult version of the puzzle, with one change hidden in a complex picture of 30 or so objects. You will likely find this task much harder, but you would also probably be much less aware of other things happening in your surroundings as you completed it. This task would fill the ‘pint glass’ of attention, due to it’s increased attentional load, so we would be less likely to process anything else.
For teachers these findings suggest that one way of reducing distraction in the classroom is to pay attention to the attentional load of the material that is being presented. High load materials are likely to lead to reduced awareness of potentially distracting extraneous material.
Suggestions for practice:
- Experiment with ways of increasing the attentional load of presentations, e.g. by delivering information across multiple sensory modalities.
- Reduce the number of obvious potential distractors in classrooms, e.g. eye-catching displays around the board or front of the room where you want attention to be focused.
Team this idea also with ‘working memory’ – aim to produce activities which have high attentional load but low working memory load. Also with ‘cognitive load theory’
Call for research ideas:
Although very well established in the laboratory, there has been (to my knowledge) no attempts to translate load theory of attention into educational resources and practice. One major reason for this might be that it is difficult to imagine what a ‘high load’ educational resource might look like. For example, what would make written text ‘higher load’? If anyone has any ideas then let me know!