When the foreground becomes the background. Distraction, habituation and classroom displays

What an annoying time to be wading into the displays debate, when many teachers will have just proudly stapled up their last sparkly border. Apologies.

One thing that I have always been interested in, but had never seen any really relevant research on, is the extent to which visual stimuli become less effective at capturing attention as we get more used to them (the technical term for this is ‘habituation’). However, I recently came across an interesting PhD thesis which specifically examines this question. 

In the thesis, Bonetti reports a series of experiments which follow a similar pattern. They look at the effect that a task-irrelevant visual stimulus (i.e. a distractor) has on performance (measured as the effect on reaction time – how much reactions were slowed by the presence of the distractor). 

This is then compared to performance when the participants have been able to passively view the experiment set-up (without having to respond) for 200 trials, before then joining the experiment, in other words where participants have had a chance to passively habituate to the irrelevant stimulus. An example of the results (which were replicated across different experiments is below). The green line indicates the ‘habituation’ condition. The important thing to note is that, having passively habituated to the distraction for 200 trials, the distractor had less of an effect than it did for people who just started the experiment normally. Thus, it seems that we do habituate to visual features of our surroundings, even in cases where we are not specifically interacting with them.

 I think this is quite an important finding for the use of visual displays in classrooms. It seems odd to apply experiments on visual distractions to classroom displays (which of course we never set up specifically to act as a distraction), but really the term ‘distraction’ here just refers to any visual stimulus which is not immediately task-relevant… which displays often are. Also, importantly, these findings involve the passive viewing of the stimulus, which is a much more realistic model for the way that many displays are likely to function in classrooms (at least some of the time). This is the first time that I have seen evidence which looks as how passively viewed stimuli affect our attentional processing over time, and I really like it as a realistic model of how visual processes might operate in familiar environments.

There are two contrasting messages that we can take from these results. On the plus side, the argument that colourful displays are likely to be a major distraction to students is undermined by evidence of habituation, as it suggests that any distracting effect is likely to diminish fairly quickly, as the display gradually fades into the background. The corollary of this, of course, is that such habituation is just as likely to reduce any of the positive benefits that we might imagine that students might pick up from our carefully crafted displays as well. 

Overall I the evidence on habituation mostly reinforces my previous ‘Best Bet’ for displays in the classroom to “remove all displays from the front half of my classroom… and only make a display visible to the class if I knew that I would be referring to it regularly as part of a classroom routine.” Cueing attention to the display will override the habituation effects, as it will make it an active, rather than a passive focus of attention. Not putting other displays (in the traditional sense) in the front half of the room saves on a very time-consuming process that students are likely to rapidly habituate to anyway.

HOWEVER, I would now generally be more open to general decorations around this part of a room. Some lovely examples of permanent or semi-permanent classroom decorations have been shared on Twitter recently, all of which generally serve to make classrooms look like nice places to be. That first impression as students walk into a room may be worth something, even if they rapidly get used to the specific details. Time to get channelling my inner (or perhaps ‘interior’) designer.

When the foreground becomes the background. Distraction, habituation and classroom displays

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