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Science in Mind

Study finds tests cure a wandering mind

Interjecting more tests and quizzes may prevent students from losing focus during lectures, in both online settings and the classroom.ISTOCK PHOTO/iStock

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 — if people can figure out how to do it right. As information has become freely available and portable, it’s both always at one’s fingertips and always competing against an expanding number of distractions.

Feedback on videotaped courses shows that online 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 hourlong lecture, it will take me two, three, four hours to get through it,’ ” said Karl Szpunar, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Harvard University.

One remedy, according to a study led by Szpunar, may be to sprinkle in tests and quizzes throughout a lecture. Szpunar and colleagues found in the study published last 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 with brief breaks about every five minutes. 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.


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.

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.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.