One way to curtail a wandering mind during class: more testing

You are sitting in a classroom, listening to a lecture. The subject may be something that you find genuinely interesting. But at a certain point, attention erodes. The information begins to wash over you. Nothing sinks in.

Can science help?

Cognitive psychologists who study how the mind works have begun applying their insights to teaching, searching for ways to structure classes that might stop people’s minds from wandering, improve their memory of course material, and deepen their comprehension.

The question has become more urgent with the explosion of excitement over online courses. The free courses could revolutionize how millions of people learn and reshape the role that the physical college campus plays in education — but only if people can figure out how to do it right. As information and entertainment have become freely available and portable, a growing number of educationally enriching resources and distractions are always at one’s fingertips and always competing against one another.


Feedback on videotaped courses, for example, indicates that on-demand access to lectures can be a resource and a challenge.

“We talk to students here who say, ‘It’s a great tool to have. But at the same time when I’m sitting at home and have the TV on and a laptop on another screen for an hour-long lecture, it will take me two, three, four hours to get through it,’ ’’ said Karl Szpunar, a post-doctoral researcher in psychology at Harvard University.

One remedy, according to a study led by Szpunar, may be to sprinkle tests and quizzes throughout a lecture. Szpunar and colleagues found in the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that interspersing videotaped lectures with quizzes improved students’ ability to stay focused, take relevant notes, and learn material.

In two experiments, 80 students were asked to watch a 21-minute long video lecture on basic statistics. In the first experiment, the students were given lecture notes and slides and were told that there would be breaks between four segments, during which they would be given some math problems to do. Then, the participants were told they would receive either two minutes of questions based on the content they had just learned, or two minutes of additional math problems. The group that was tested at the end of each break on the lecture material did the best on a final cumulative test , took more notes, and stayed more focused, reporting their minds strayed less often.


In a second experiment, the researchers tried to discern whether merely re-exposing the students to the course material would be a way to get the same effect. So they added a group that had a two-minute review session, receiving possible test questions and the answers. Again, they found that those who were actually tested did the best and reported less mind wandering.

It remains to be seen whether results like these will shift teaching practices, both in online settings and in the classroom. But the fact that teachers may not be able to see the glassy look in their students’ eyes when they are teaching thousands of people over the Internet may increase the need for care to be taken in designing effective classes.

“Everyone’s jumping into the deep end right now and everyone wants to get involved with online learning and it’s very appealing,’’ Szpunar said. “But at the same time, we know next to nothing about how people learn from online content.’’

And, lest teachers worry their students will collapse under the burden of stress of constant testing, the researchers paradoxically found that students actually feel less anxiety.

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