Mind wandering during University lectures is an experience familiar to students, however there is much to be understood regarding the nature of student attention during real-world lectures. This program of research draws on the work of Smallwood and Schooler (2006) and Smallwood, Fishman, and Schooler (2007) regarding the influences of mind wandering on encoding and comprehension to formulate research questions with the aim of investigating factors that influence student attention during lectures as well as the consequences to learning associated with inattention during lectures. These experimental aims are addressed through three ecologically valid lecture studies (Chapters 2, 3 and 4) and one simulated classroom study (Chapter 5).
The first chapter details the available literature regarding the nature of student attention in classroom and simulated lecture settings and then describes the ‘decoupling of attention’ (Smallwood & Schooler, 2006 pp. 951) account of mind wandering and examines this in relation to experimental studies of encoding and reading comprehension. This chapter investigates the concept of ‘affordances’ - exogenous supports to attention (Smallwood, Baracaia, Lowe, & Obonsawin, 2003 pp. 456) and also evaluates the measurement method used in this experimental series. This chapter then reviews the literature regarding a number of exogenous factors that may influence mind wandering during lectures, as well as examines potential endogenous factors that may also influence student mind wandering.
Chapter 2 describes an ecologically valid study of daydreaming in a first year University lecture in psychology on the topic of consciousness. 463 Students completed a series of survey items regarding course interest, detail of note taking, seating position and possession of handouts. During the lecture an auditory probe was sounded five times alerting students to record whether they were daydreaming. Results showed that students were off-task approximately one third of the time during the lecture, with significant negative associations between mind wandering frequency and course interest and detail of notes taken. Students sitting in the front section of the lecture theatre experienced significantly less daydreaming than those seated in the back, while a marginally significant effect of having lecture handouts on daydreaming frequency was found. As daydreaming frequency increased there was a trend towards poorer performance in course exams measuring the learning of lecture-based content.
Chapter 3 describes a lecture study designed to confirm findings of the first using a different lecture, lecturer and lecture environment. This study also sought to determine whether note taking on lecture handouts conferred an additional attentional benefit. 286 psychology students attended a neuropsychology lecture delivered by a young female lecturer. Students engaged in mind wandering approximately one quarter of the time, a significantly lower proportion than that observed in the first study (delivered by an older male lecturer). The educational correlates of the first study persisted with course interest, lecture handouts and detail of note taking found to be significant predictors of mind wandering frequency. The suppressive effect of detail note taking on mind wandering did not differ when notes were taken on handouts.
Chapter 4 details a third lecture study designed to investigate endogenous factors that may influence mind wandering during lectures, determine the orienting influence of lecture slide transitions and confirm the academic correlates of the first lecture study. 318 first year psychology students attended a consciousness lecture held at 10am and 2pm the following day. Four probes were sounded during this lecture for the purpose of the lecture slide transition analysis. Higher frequencies of mind wandering were significantly positively associated with higher levels of absentmindedness and degree of sleepiness.
Time of day had a marginal effect on mind wandering frequency, while caffeine consumption prior to the lecture had no effect. Time following slide transition also had no effect. In terms of academic achievement a higher mind wandering frequency was not only associated with course exams, but also course assignments, suggesting that individual differences may also play a role in the mind wandering/ academic performance relationship.
Chapter 5 details a simulated classroom study designed to examine key findings of the initial studies in a controlled experimental environment. Participants watched an educational video and completed a comprehension test, which consisted of recognition and recall items. Participants experienced mind wandering around 30% of the time, with higher levels of mind wandering leading to poorer performance on the comprehension test, with recognition affected more so than recall. Manipulation of note taking as an independent variable did not influence mind wandering frequency, however of those who did take notes those recording more words experienced fewer mind wandering episodes.
Taken together these empirical studies indicate that students engage in mind wandering approximately 30% of the time during lectures, with heightened levels of mind wandering having significant consequences for the learning of material presented during lectures, both real-world and simulated. These studies show that while some influences are beyond the control of the educator, classroom activities such as providing lecture notes and encouraging note taking can help to keep student attention focused. Limitations are discussed in the Final chapter, along with suggestions for future research.