Many students don't pay much attention in class. They come to class, but most of the time, only their bodies are present. When they study, that demanding task occurs as they attend to a host of other, often more engaging mental activities. It is a problem, but maybe our expectations are unrealistic. As Pachai, Acai, LoGiudice, and Kim (2016) say, “It is unreasonable to expect students to continuously pay attention while listening to a lecture, reading a textbook, or studying for an exam. The mind naturally wanders, shifting attention from the primary task at hand to internal, personally relevant thoughts” (p. 134). In fact, researchers estimate that Pachai and colleagues say that our minds wander 30–50 percent of the time during our daily lives. It happens to teachers, students, and everybody else.
However, educational settings have features that make them ripe for mind wandering. Learning tasks are typically lengthy, and most are mentally taxing; both conditions are conducive to mental or mind wandering. Most students aren't used to listening to someone speak for extended periods of time. Textbooks are long, generally with considerable new vocabulary and often on topics students don't think of as interesting. It's hard to stay focused on the reading. When there are only two or three tests in a course, they cover large chunks of content, which makes studying a formidable task. However, even though mind wandering should be expected, when the tasks involve learning and the mind is not focused on that task, the learning suffers. The authors note, “Attention is a limited resource necessary to maximize learning. Simply put, students cannot learn what they are not paying attention to” (p. 142).
Despite the importance of focused attention, mind wandering is not without benefits. Understanding these benefits begins with a bit of background. Mind wandering is mostly measured with thought probes. Subjects are listening, reading, or studying, and at various intervals they are asked to report what they were thinking about just before the probe. Increasingly the measurement involves technology: brain wave signatures that show up on EEGs or by visual attention. Research has established that when the mind wanders, the eyes blink significantly more.
Analysis of responses to thought-probe questions reveals many of the reported thoughts are future-oriented, primarily planning for things that need to be done in the future. In other words, it's not always pointless mental meandering. Perhaps even more beneficial is work showing that enhanced creativity and problem solving stem from mind wandering. If there's a break and then a task that's not terribly demanding, mind wandering can creatively confront the larger, more complicated tasks. In other words, sometimes problems can be solved when the focus isn't on solving them. In some research, when subjects returned from a break, they were able to generate more creative solutions. And finally, mind wandering can provide beneficial relief from boredom. It provides the short break needed to refresh and refocus. In this case it serves an adaptive function, “allowing one to continue an activity that has become tedious or uninteresting, but is nonetheless important to sustain” (p. 140).
The most useful part of this well-documented exploration of mind wandering are the authors' four strategies for more effectively managing student attention in classrooms.
This is an excellent article. It proposes a realistic understanding of mind wandering. Mind wandering can't be entirely eliminated. It should not be thought of as inexcusable and completely without merit. The instructional objective ought to be efforts aimed at doing what can be done to circumvent it when attention is most crucial for learning. And if your mind happened to wander while reading this, look again at this last paragraph, and you'll have the essence of what you missed.
Reference: Pachai, A. A., Acai, A., LoGiudice, & Kim, J. A. (2016). The mind that wanders: Challenges and potential benefits of mind wandering in education. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2(2), 134–146.