The current project examines an important yet neglected factor in the learning of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) materials, namely, involuntary mind-wandering, or momentary attention lapses from external stimuli or events, such as texts or lectures. Although mind-wandering is highly prevalent during attempts at learning (as high as 40% of the time during typical classroom lectures), little research has been done to shed light on the potential influences of mind-wandering on STEM learning. To fill this gap in knowledge, the research team from two institutions (University of Colorado Boulder and University of North Carolina Greensboro) examines: (a) how mind-wandering affects learning and retention of STEM concepts; (b) how typical classroom behaviors (e.g., note-taking, media multitasking) influence mind-wandering during lectures, thereby affecting learning and retention; (c) whether interventions designed to decrease mind-wandering ultimately improve learning and retention; and (d) how individual differences in both cognitive and noncognitive variables influence mind-wandering and what sort of individuals are affected most (either positively or negatively) by typical classroom behaviors or designed interventions. Although this primarily laboratory research will focus on basic statistics learning among college students, the prevalence of mind-wandering across contexts makes this work relevant to other STEM disciplines as well, because STEM learning often builds directly on previously learned concepts and, hence, early learning failures may have a particularly severe negative cascading effect on subsequent learning.
The project takes a converging-operations approach, through a systematic series of laboratory-based experimental and individual-differences studies as well as a large-scale classroom observational study. Laboratory studies will assess STEM learning from realistic video lectures, during which students? in-the-moment thoughts are occasionally probed; moreover, rigorous individual-differences measurement of cognitive ability (i.e., executive functions), prior STEM knowledge, and STEM motivation, enables the assessment of their influences on mind-wandering and on learning. Lab-study manipulations will test the extent to which note-taking and multitasking affect students? attention to lectures and thereby influence learning. Laboratory interventions will attempt to decrease mind-wandering (and increase learning) by scaffolding attention or by increasing personal relevance of STEM material. The classroom-observation study will assess the extent to which personal relevance and attention-enhancing (or disrupting) classroom behaviors predict STEM course grades. Together, these studies will provide the first systematic and rigorous investigations into the effects of mind-wandering on STEM learning and retention.
Understanding the mechanisms and consequences of student mind-wandering in classrooms is crucial to developing interventions that maximize STEM learning. The proposed research will enable subsequent scaled-up, theoretically motivated interventions for not only STEM classrooms but also for on-line multimedia learning environments. Moreover, the focus on typical classroom behaviors (e.g., note-taking and media multitasking) and general underlying cognitive and motivational factors (e.g., executive functions, prior knowledge, and personal relevance) makes the findings and insights from the proposed research broadly relevant to many STEM (and non-STEM) disciplines. The proposed project will also provide unique training opportunities for undergraduate and graduate research assistants and a postdoctoral associate by teaching them to integrate experimental and psychometric methods and applying them to both laboratory and authentic classroom settings.