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Dr. Spencer Kagan

The Problem Is Not the Cell Phone

Texting and Mind-Wandering.
In the absence of compelling external content, the brain naturally turns to social cognition. Texting is a social activity. So too is mind-wandering: During mind-wandering we activate the social cognition network–our thoughts turn to understanding the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others. Thus, both texting and mind-wandering are a predictable response to the non engaging format of WCQA. Given the lack of engaging external stimuli, the brain gravitates toward social cognition.

Pervasiveness of Mind-Wandering
Mind-wandering is variously referred to as "stimulus-independent thought (SIT),"9 "task unrelated images and thoughts (TUIT),"10 "task unrelated thought (TUT),"11 "attention lapses,"12 "zone outs,"13 "daydreaming,"14 "decoupling of attention from the external environment,"15 and "Mind-Wandering."16

Numerous studies document the pervasiveness of mind-wandering:

  • Among 2,250 adults randomly sampled during the day via an iPhone application, mind-wandering (attention to non task-related thoughts) occurred a remarkable 46.9% of the time!17
  • The iPhone application revealed mind-wandering occurs in all but one waking activity at least 30% of the time or more. The one exception: making love!
  • A bell was sounded to sample mind-wandering during college classes and the researchers found minds wandering 54% of the time!18
  • Spontaneous mind-wandering occurs more often among college students with a childhood history of ADHD.19
  • In a major review of mind-wandering research, the authors concluded, "mind-wandering may be one of the most ubiquitous and pervasive of all cognitive phenomena."20 Their review of different approaches to measuring mind-wandering revealed mind-wandering occurs across a diverse variety of tasks between 15% and 50% of a person's time.

Using a clicker device to record mind-wandering during lectures, researchers found attention lapses to be early and frequent. They disconfirm the notion that minds only begin to wander after about 10 minutes into a presentation:

Contrary to common belief, the data in this study suggest that students do not pay attention continuously for 10–20 minutes during a lecture. Instead their attention alternates continuously between being engaged and non-engaged in ever-shortening cycles throughout a lecture segment.... Students report attention lapses as early as the first 30 seconds of a lecture, with the next lapse occurring approximately 4.5 minutes into a lecture and again at shorter and shorter cycles throughout the lecture segment. 21

Additional research has disconfirmed the belief that attention declines only after ten to fifteen minutes into a lecture. Minds begin wandering right away!22

Mind-Wandering Lowers Achievement
Mind-wandering impairs achievement:

  • Mind-wandering is related to decreased note-taking and performance on course exams.23
  • Participants whose minds wander more, fail to notice when the text they are reading has turned to gibberish and continue reading for a significant number of words before realizing what they are reading makes no sense!24
  • Mind-wandering occurs about 20–40% of the time during reading, and those whose minds are wandering are often unaware they are off topic—they lack meta-cognitive skills.25
  • Reading comprehension is lower for those whose minds wander more.26, 27

Experimenters measured mind-wandering in a lecture to 334 undergraduate students taking an introduction to psychology course.28 During the fifty-minute lecture a bell rang at 8, 15, 25, 34, and 40 minutes into the lecture. Students recorded if they were focused on the lecture or on unrelated thoughts or images. Mind-wandering was associated with lower performance on mid-term and final exams and overall course grades. It was also correlated with lower overall academic performance. To the extent the mind is wandering, the lecture is not understood or retained.29

The negative relationship between mind-wandering and test performance is strong. Experimenters tested mind-wandering and test performance in three one-hour lectures, each with different content. Individuals were probed at intervals during the lectures to report if their minds were wandering. After the lecture was over, those who self-reported mind-wandering on fewer than 50% of the probes correctly answered 77% of the questions on lecture content; those who reported mind-wandering on more than 50% of the probes correctly answered only 54% of the questions.30

An Antidote to Texting and Mind-Wandering: Engaging Instructional Strategies

An antidote to both texting and mind-wandering is the use of engaging, cooperative instructional strategies that meet the need for demanding external stimulation and engagement of the social cognition network. Here I will briefly describe two of many such strategies that can be used during any lecture or presentation: Listen Right! and Numbered Heads Together. Details of these strategies are presented in two books: Kagan Cooperative Learning,31 and Brain-Friendly Teaching.32 Steps of additional highly engaging, interactive instructional strategies are available in over 100 books published by Kagan Publishing.33

Listen Right!
In contrast to traditional lectures in which students take notes while the teacher is talking, Listen Right! separates listening and note-taking. Students have full, undivided attention to a chunk of the lecture and undivided attention to note-taking. They are not attempting to take notes while listening to the next bit of the lecture, which results in impoverished listening and impoverished note taking. The social cognition network is activated as students share their notes with others and improve them via the interaction. The steps of the strategy are as follows:

  1. Teacher presents a chunk of content.
  2. Teacher stops presenting.
  3. Students take notes, without interacting with other students.
  4. Students share their notes with a partner or within their team, augmenting if a partner has included something important they have missed.
  5. Teacher announces key points.
  6. Students celebrate if they recorded key points.
  7. Teacher presents next chunk and process is repeated.

Numbered Heads Together
In contrast to working alone, Numbered Heads Together is designed to have students "put their heads together" to encourage, support, and tutor each other at points during a lecture or presentation, activating the social cognition network. The steps of the strategy are as follows:

  1. Students in teams of four each have a number, 1 through 4.
  2. Teacher asks a question or poses a problem and allows think time.
  3. Students privately write an answer.
  4. Students stand and share answers with teammates, discussing and teaching each other.
  5. Students sit when everyone knows the answer or feels prepared to share their thoughts.
  6. Teacher calls a number, 1 through 4.
  7. Students with that number stand, shows their answers via a slate, response card, or some other way.
  8. Classmates applaud those with the right answer or with a differentiated response.

Listen Right! and Numbered Heads Together both engage the social cognition network and both provide a high level of engaging stimulation. Students engaged in these and other highly engaging, interactive instructional strategies have little time or inclination to text or to mind-wander. Research confirms the impact of engaging instructional strategies. In a series of independent research studies conducted by a research team at State University of New York (SUNY) comparing Numbered Heads Together and WCQA, the average effect size favoring Numbered Heads Together was .89.34 An effect size of .89 means a student scoring 50 using WCQA would score 81 had they been taught with Numbered Heads Together!

Rather than blaming cell phones and texting for lack of student engagement, instructors using traditional lectures and WCQA would do well to take a hard look at the instructional strategies they are using. There are alternative proven, engaging instructional strategies that prevent texting and mind-wandering, and which enhance joy and success in teaching and learning.