Three interesting recent research papers on attention, with relevance to education

The glacial pace of scientific publishing means that research output hasn’t noticeably been affected by the pandemic as yet (this may change in 6 months or so), and as a result we are still seeing interesting and relevant new papers being published. Three recent papers on attention stood out to me in particular as being potentially useful for education, so I wanted to summarise them (and the conclusions that I draw from them) here. Firstly this from Pereira et al.

Mindwandering has often been linked negatively to academic performance, but Pereira et al. found a slightly more nuanced picture. They found that a stable personality characteristic (‘effortful control’) was an important moderator in this relationship. 

Specifically, for individuals with high ‘Effortful control’, higher tendency for mindwandering was associated with higher academic achievement, whereas for those with low ‘Effortful control’, higher tendency for mindwandering was associated with lower academic achievement. This is presumably because high effortful control will allow the mindwandering to remain relevant to the ongoing task (so may represent considering the issues in more detail or from a different angle, rather than task-irrelevant mindwandering which will be harmful).

I like this paper because it throws another light on mindwandering as NOT always a negative process in education. This could lead us to suggest that we don’t need to worry about it in our classrooms… but I think we have to be cautious with such conclusions as teachers. As we are unlikely to be aware of our students’ individual levels of effortful control, and given the range of previous evidence that has linked mindwandering to generally negative educational effects, I think we should still aim to generally reduce mindwandering in class, just as we might aim to reduce any other distraction.

I also think that as teachers we sometimes can be a little fatalistic about our control of our students’ attention, and that it generally pays to view it as a resource over we can exercise some control.

“BUT HOW DO WE DO THAT?” I hear you cry. Well two other recent papers give some hints. Firstly this from Robison and colleagues (note: this is a pre-print at present so hasn’t been peer reviewed)

Across four experiments, Robison et al. examined the effect of three interventions (goal-setting, feedback and incentives) on ‘vigilance’ (defined as ‘the ability to maintain attention to cognitively unchallenging activities over a prolonged period of time’ and taken as a general measure of attention control) and on mindwandering during a fairly long and boring experimental task, which basically involved repeating the same simple reaction time task over and over for 30 minutes.

The most effective intervention, which improved vigilance AND reduced task-unrelated thoughts (mindwandering) in the task was having a combination of a specific goal (i.e. aiming to keep the response time under a particular figure, such as 300ms), and feedback on how well the goal was being met (both after each trial, and after a block of trials).

Notably incentives (either time or money) mostly didn’t improve performance. This perhaps suggests that attention may not be all that affected by extrinsic motivation, which is an interesting thought.

Robison et al. actually conclude quite pessimistically, as vigilance and mindwandering increased over time in the experiment, regardless of the intervention used. BUT… this was a VERY long and boring task, so that rise hardly surprises me, and I’m not sure that it should be of much concern to educators, as we will be delivering tasks that are a lot more cognitively interesting, varied and demanding. What is interesting for educators, is that specific goal-setting, and feedback on how well those goals are being met, was the best strategy for improving attention and reducing mindwandering.

Another interesting approach is demonstrated by Zedelius et al.  (open access version here)

They looked at links between our ‘lay beliefs’ about mindwandering, and their experiences that people have of mindwandering. They did this using a series of questionnaires, including a newly designed scale for measuring the extent to which their participants believed that ‘mindwandering is controllable or uncontrollable’.

*(note here that it’s always worth being cautious when interpreting results of newly designed scales that the authors have created themselves. Zedelius et al. do report some positive validation efforts which compare their scale to other widely used measures of mindwandering, but it will still be good to see this scale more widely used by others)*

Participants who believed that they could not control their own thoughts reported experiencing more mindwandering more anxious and depressive thoughts, and less effective thought control strategies. Therefore, there seems to be a mindset element to mindwandering frequency and content. However, this doesn’t show that we can do anything about this. It could be a feature of personality features such as those reported by Pereira et al., which are out of our individual control.

In order to answer this question, Zedelius et al. conducted two further experiments where they deliberately manipulated the ‘lay beliefs’ of their participant through reading a series of texts. One group read a text which suggested that mindwandering was uncontrollable, whereas another group read a text which described it as within a person’s control. Although small, there was a positive effect of the manipulation of the beliefs on mindwandering; participants in the controllable condition, across both studies, mindwandered less than in the uncontrollable condition. This therefore suggests that, to some extent, our mindsets about attention and mindwandering are open to change.

Finally, Zedelius et al. looked to see whether they could improve text comprehension using a one of two ‘strategies’ designed to reduce mindwandering during reading. The first strategy encouraged participants to read a text ‘with curiosity’, and the second encouraged participants to ‘engage deeply with the contents rather than superficial characteristics of the text’.  The strategies were useful, leading to improved text comprehension compared to controls … but only for people who already scored highly in the belief that mindwandering is controllable. People who believed that their mindwandering was uncontrollable showed no benefit.

What can teachers take from this?

The positive news that we can take from these results is that there do appear to be some strategies that we can use to improve attention in our students… but that it might first be essential that they have the right mindset about attention. Both goal-setting and feedback, and encouraging deep engagement or curiosity, appear to improve have positive attentional benefits but, as Zeledius et al. show, the right beliefs about their degree of cognitive control may need to be in place in the minds of students first.

My plan for using these results is as follows:

  1. Emphasise that mindwandering (and attention more generally) is a process which students have a large degree of control over. In my induction materials for Y12 I am including the following dialogue, adapted from the instructions of Zedelius et al:
    • Mindwandering is when you chose to no longer pay attention to what you are doing and you move your attention towards unrelated thoughts. For instance, rather than focusing all your attention on the task you are doing at the moment, you may find yourself thinking about things that happened earlier in the day or things you plan on doing later. Most of the time, people notice quickly that their mind is wandering, and that enables them to focus their attention back on their main task, and avoid wandering off again. In fact, research has found that people are remarkably good at controlling how much they mindwander. The same goes for distraction. People are remarkably good at resisting being distracted by irrelevant information, and at focusing their attention back on the main goal. If, at points this year, you find your attention wandering to unrelated things, remind yourself that you are in control of your attention, and bring it back to the main task.
    • This can then be followed-up whenever I suspect students of being distracted or mindwandering, with a reminder that they are in control of their own attention, and a request to bring it back to the task.
  • Increase the specificity of the goals that I set my students. I get students to set goals after each piece of extended written work, for example, but I wonder if I could also set some simple performance goals for other work which may impact on attention. I’m still working on what exactly this may include, but current plans are, for example
    • “average students were able to successfully answer 70% of these recall questions last year. See if you can beat that score”
    • “Write a paragraph on x. Aim to write at least 200 words in the next 5 minutes.”
  • Encourage deeper reading and curiosity at every turn:
    • Instead of simply saying, for example “read this and let me know if you have any questions”, as I might sometimes do, this year I am going to make an effort to say something more like “read this and think really deeply about what the text is telling you. If anything arouses your curiosity, then ask me at the end. I’m looking forward to some great questions.” It’s a little contrived, but hopefully I’ll find ways of making it sound more spontaneous as time goes on.  

Three interesting recent research papers on attention, with relevance to education

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