A student looking bored in a classroom.

Good News for Students With Wandering Minds

The expectation is that students should always pay attention. But could drifting off actually help them pick up important secondary information?


If you’ve ever found yourself zoning out during lectures or classes, you might be in luck. A new study from the University of Toronto has found that attention lapses can actually be helpful when it comes to learning secondary or non-targeted information.

The study was co-led by Alexandra Decker, a postdoctoral fellow in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT and former graduate student in U of T’s Department of Psychology, and Michael Dubois, also of the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychology. It was published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

While paying attention is certainly important when it comes to learning information being taught in a lecture or textbook, there’s often secondary information present which isn’t immediately obvious to the learner. For example, Decker described in a news release how the correct answer in a multiple choice test she’d been taking was always the longest and most detailed option. This pattern had nothing to do with the content of the test, but did help Decker earn a higher score.

“If I had been focused on just the lesson material and choosing the right answer, I might not have picked up on that pattern,” she said.

This is one example of secondary or non-targeted information that can help us when we’re learning — assuming we’re able to pick up on it. Decker and Dubois, along with coauthors and U of T professors Amy Finn and Katherine Duncan, were interested in studying how exactly learners gain this sort of secondary information.

“[W]e wanted to know whether being too focused on a learning goal might not be a good thing and whether attentional lapses can broaden our attention and enable us to take in more information from our environment,” Decker said.

To do this, they recruited 53 undergraduate students and asked them to carry out a monotonous task. They students had to observe a set of slides displaying a number or letter surrounded by two symbols (for example, # or *).

The students were told that the symbols were irrelevant, and were then asked to press different keys depending on whether they saw a number or a letter. In actuality, however, there was a pattern to the symbols depending on whether a number or a letter was being displayed.

Despite being told to only concentrate on the letters and numbers, the students did eventually pick up on the pattern with the symbols. The researchers believe that the students’ attention lapses during their monotonous task were what allowed them recognize these hidden patterns.

“Our ability to focus and learn may come at the cost of learning about a lot of other information that we don’t think is relevant at the moment,” coauthor Finn explained.

“Our study shows that perhaps we need to acknowledge that there’s more than one way of learning.”

‹ Previous post
Next post ›

Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.