Wednesday, 20 July 2016

There's a simple trick to reduce your mind wandering while studying

It happens to all of us – we're meant to be focused on the page in the book, but our mind is turned inwards thinking about other stuff (Must remember to charge my phone, What time did I say I'd meet Sarah?) Thankfully a new study in Memory and Cognition identifies a straightforward way to reduce how much your mind wanders off topic when you're studying. You just need to ensure the materials you're learning are in your sweet spot – not too easy and not too difficult.

For one experiment, Judy Xu and Janet Metcalfe tested the ability of 26 students to translate 179 different English words into Spanish. For any that the students got wrong, they were asked to say whether they were close to learning the word or miles off. Based on this, the researchers created a tailor-made list of word pairs for each participant – some already mastered, some unknown but not far off being learned (psychologists call this the "region of proximal learning"), and finally some difficult word pairs that were far from being learned.

Next, the students spent time studying the easy, medium and difficult word pairs, and periodically they were given an onscreen prompt that asked them whether they were on-task or mind wandering (which they admitted to doing on about one third of the prompts). Finally, the students were tested on the word pairs they'd just studied. As the researchers predicted, the students mind wandered more while studying more difficult word pairs, compared with medium difficulty, and there was a trend for them to mind wander more during study of easy word pairs. Moreover, the final test showed that the students showed superior learning of word pairs for which they'd been on-task rather than mind wandering during the study phase.

A final experiment showed how these effects vary with a person's mastery of the material. Dozens more students were tested twice on easy, medium and difficult English-Spanish word pairs after two successive sessions of study. Poorer performers on the tests showed greater mind wandering when studying the more difficult pairs, while the stronger performers mind wandered more while studying the easier items.

The researchers said their findings suggest there is a "delicate balance" to be struck to find the right level of learning difficulty to reduce mind wandering (and so increase learning), and that the sweet spot depends on the difficulty of the materials and the expertise of the learner. You could try doing some basic self-testing alone or with a friend to try to find study material that's in your sweet spot. Concluding, the researchers said: "Our results suggest that students may sometimes mind wander not because of an inherent lack of motivation or an inability to learn, but rather because the difficulty of the to-be-learned materials is inappropriate."


Xu, J., & Metcalfe, J. (2016). Studying in the region of proximal learning reduces mind wandering Memory & Cognition, 44 (5), 681-695 DOI: 10.3758/s13421-016-0589-8

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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