Key Takeaway:

Mind wandering has the potential to negatively impact the process of learning and has become more prevalent with the increased practice of online learning. Self-regulation interventions may be able to decrease mind wandering and should be widely taught to students. —Ashley M. Parnell

Self Directed Learning and Mind Wandering 

“Mind wandering, the direction of attention away from a primary task, has the potential to interfere with learning, especially in increasingly common self-directed, online learning environments.” Given the prevalence and negative consequences of mind wandering, this shift towards “self-directed learning environments with minimal supervision and maximal learner control has escalated the importance of the self-regulation of attention to ensure successful learning.”1  

Self Regulation to Combat Mind Wandering

Self-regulation can be defined as the ability to manage one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions to achieve a learning goal. “Decades of empirical evidence supports self-regulation’s role in enhancing learning, as well as strategies that may be taught and used to combat mind wandering and encourage on-task focus.” 

In response, the current study sought to examine the extent to which mind wandering harms training outcomes in self-directed learning environments, as well as to compare various strategies to prevent off-task thought. Drawing from three core theoretical perspectives on the causes of mind wandering, researchers created three intervention conditions, each focusing on more than one self-regulation strategy as summarized below.

Theoretical PerspectivesObjective & Intervention Strategies
Current concerns hypothesis: Mind wandering occurs when personal concerns and goals are more valued than the primary taskIncrease value of the task and decrease other concerns/distractors by:Goal settingEnvironmental structuring (i.e., identification & removal of environmental distractions)
Executive failure hypothesis: Mind wandering is a failure of executive controlUse proactive executive control to direct focus on-task through:Planning of learning activities & objectivesMetacognitive monitoring (constant evaluation of one’s learning progress)Use reactive executive control to suppress cues that trigger mind wandering through:Implementation intentions (i.e., If-then self statements)Time management Environmental structuring  
Meta-awareness hypothesis: Mind wandering results from not being aware of the contents of consciousness.Increase awareness of consciousness through:Mindfulness (attention to & awareness/ acceptance of the present moment)Metacognitive monitoring 

Researchers tested these three interventions in two experiments: a field study with 133 working adults and a lab study with 175 college students where participants completed a self-directed online Excel training. While self-regulation interventions and excel training conditions remained the same across studies, setting, timing, and participants differed.


Researchers reported the following findings based on the two studies conducted:

  • Mind wandering during training negatively impacts self-directed learning outcomes including knowledge, self-efficacy, and trainee reactions to training.
    • The negative effects of mind wandering were notably stronger in Study 2, which incorporated less self-pacing and reported lower motivation levels.  
    • Short, one-time, online intervention was not enough to alter use of self-regulation strategies.
  • Interventions largely failed to impact trainees’ self-regulation, mind wandering, or learning relative to the control group. However, the ineffectiveness of the self-regulation interventions does not indicate that the selected self-regulatory strategies were ineffective in deterring mind wandering. 
    • Correlational results indicated that strategies strongly associated with decreased mind wandering include:  “a) practicing mindfulness by being present in the moment, b) forming and utilizing implementation intentions, c) intermittently monitoring performance using self-directed evaluative questions, and d) structuring the learning environment to minimize distractions.” 

Considerations & Implications for Practice

Results warranted consideration of the following implications for practice:  

  • Motivation levels matter in training/learning. Designing and delivering self-directed learning in ways that do not bore or overwhelm learners, and incorporating motivational incentives, may decrease mind wandering and, subsequently, the harmful effects of mind wandering.
  • Initial, albeit limited, results identify strategies that may decrease mind wandering: mindfulness, metacognitive monitoring, implementation intentions, and environmental structuring. Given self-regulation’s inherent role in online learning, efforts to develop effective interventions to teach and develop these self-regulation strategies and skills should continue. 

Summarized Article:

Randall, J., Hanson, M., & Nassrelgrgawi, A. (2021). Staying focused when nobody is watching: Self‐regulatory strategies to reduce mind wandering during self‐directed learning. Applied Psychology. 10.1111/apps.12366

Summary by: Ashley M. Parnell — Ashley strives to apply the MARIO Framework to build evidence-based learning environments that support student engagement, empowerment, and passion, and is working with a team of educators to grow and share this framework with other educators.

Academic researcher Jason Randall participated in the final version of this summary. 

Additional References:

  1. Johnson, R. D., & Randall, J. G. (2018). A review of design considerations in e-learning. In D. L. Stone & J. H. Dulebohn (Eds.), Research in human resource management (pp. 141– 188). Information Age Publishing.

Key Takeaway

As educators, we know that learning is always more meaningful when there is student involvement and ownership. When designing Tier 2 behavior interventions, student participation and feedback in the process increases effectiveness as student investment increases with involvement. —Nika Espinosa 

Tiers of Behavioral Support

The paper by Mallory et al. dives into the importance of student involvement in the design of Tier 2 behavior interventions and provides a framework to help educators involve students.

“Positive behavior interventions and supports is a multilevel approach to behavior support implementation that involves three tiers of interventions targeting students’ various levels of needs.”

  • Whole-school or class-wide implementation is found at the Tier 1 level, where agreed-upon behavioral expectations are defined and implemented. Students are presented with opportunities to develop these skills. 
  • Tier 2 support is for those who need targeted intervention or need something more than what can be provided by the Tier 1 level if at-risk behaviors manifest. This could look like individual or small-group sessions, with more opportunities for reinforcement and/or support plans. 
  • Tier 3 students need intensive reinforcement, with an intervention team constantly monitoring, as well as assessing. 

Involving Students in Behavior Interventions

“It has been argued that if children are not involved in the design and implementation of interventions, then the student will be less likely to commit to, or be compliant with, the treatment.”1 

The authors provide the key stages to help design tier 2 intervention. Starting with determining the function of challenging behavior, the student can either complete a functional assessment interview or do a self-assessment of recorded unexpected behavior. 

The authors believe that a primary source for data should be the student. Then, the intervention team and the student need to determine the target skill or behavior that should be optimized. 

The likelihood of a student being motivated to change the behavior increases when they themselves identify what behaviors they see as an opportunity for growth. “If a student believes that a behavior is not worth changing, it may be difficult to get them to make significant changes in the behavior.”

Once the behavior is identified, the goal criteria are determined. “Essentially, goals should follow the Goldilocks principle: They should be neither too easy nor too difficult to achieve; they should provide a challenge without being overwhelming for the student. It is at this level of difficulty in which learning is optimal.”1 

Once that is in place, the student needs to be involved in choosing reinforcers. These reinforcers need to be highly motivating. Student involvement is crucial as it boosts their chances of working towards desired behaviors. 

Data Collection

When collecting the data, it is imperative that the student is also present. According to the authors, the easiest way to collect data is to have the student do so. “The student can be taught to identify and record data when they are engaging in the target behaviors, using a number of self-management principles, thereby decreasing the reliance on external prompts and increasing awareness of their own behaviors”. 

As the student’s involvement increases in Tier 2 interventions, so does their self-awareness, self-advocacy, and self-determination in achieving desired targets.

Summarized Article:

Mallory, P. J., Hampshire, P. K., & Carter, D. R. (2021). Tier 2 Behavior Interventions: By the Student, for the Student. Intervention in School and Clinic, 1053451221994812.

Summary by: Nika Espinosa — Nika believes that personalized learning is at the heart of special education and strives to collaborate with educators in providing a holistic, personalized approach to supporting all learners through the MARIO Framework.

Additional Reference:

  1. Kennedy, E. K. (2015). The Revised SEND Code of Practice 0-25: Effective practice in engaging children and young people in decision-making about interventions for social, emotional and mental health needs. Support for Learning, 30(4), 364–380.

Researcher Patrick Mallory participated in the final version of this summary.

Key Takeaway: In the past two years, education all over the world has been forced to adapt and embrace online learning. Students and teachers alike had to become more proficient in using technology—some navigating with ease, and others finding it more challenging. However, just as educator presence and student self-efficacy is important and impactful in the classroom, these two factors are also crucial to successful online learning. —Nika Espinosa

Lim et al.’s (2021) study, “Making online learning more satisfying: The effects of online-learning self-efficacy, social presence, and content structure” is the first to consider how social presence may matter more when learners have lower online learning self-efficacy and, separately, when the content is less structured. Here, the authors analysed readily available research on topics such as online learning, learning satisfaction, social presence, and online learning efficacy to help guide their hypotheses and research questions. 

This study was conducted with university students in Singapore. In order to establish variables, the researchers focused on a single discipline, manipulated instructor presence through the use of vocal tone, and utilized the life events of a historical figure, which provided the authors with both structured and unstructured content. The authors also used four different videos that included one of the following factors: 

  • high instructor presence and structured content
  • low instructor presence and structured content
  • high instructor presence and unstructured content
  • low instructor presence and unstructured content 

The authors measured variables using 7-point scales, adapted to fit the context. The different hypotheses and research question studied are listed below:

  • Hypothesis 1 (H1): Online learning satisfaction is higher when instructor presence is high versus low.
    • The results show that there is a positive correlation between high instructor presence and online learning satisfaction, which is consistent with studies already published. It is clear that the students appreciated social presence during the lesson, especially when the lessons are unstructured. Lim et. al quotes Rosenthal and Walker (2020).1 and Wilson (2018),2 “Instructor presence does not necessarily lead to more learning, but students have greater preference and liking of online formats with higher levels of instructor presence and find it easier to pay attention to those formats.”
  • Hypothesis 2 (H2): Online learning self-efficacy is positively associated with online learning satisfaction.
    • The authors also found that students with high online self-efficacy were observed to have more learning satisfaction. The consideration to develop online learning efficacy in students also aligns with the findings of Artino (2008),3 Lim (2001),4 and Womble (2007).5 
  • Hypothesis 3 (H3): The effect of instructor social presence on learning satisfaction is more positive for students with lower online learning self-efficacy.
    • The third hypothesis, however, did not prove to be statistically significant. Again, this connects to considerations for developing online learning self-efficacy in students in order to increase learning satisfaction. 
  • Hypothesis 4 (H4): The relationship between instructor presence and learning satisfaction is more positive for unstructured content than for structured content.
    • “The pedagogical takeaway here is that, even with highly structured content, instructor presence can enhance the learning experience, but it has more benefit for less structured content.” 
  • Research Question 1: Does learning satisfaction differ between unstructured and structured content?
    • The researchers found that there was no difference in learning satisfaction between the differences in content, and this could be attributed to different learning styles and preferences of students.

In conclusion, the findings suggest that we need to develop learner online self-efficacy and enhance instructor presence during online learning in order to develop self-directed learners that will benefit greatly from virtual lessons. Just as we develop our students’ self-efficacy and acknowledge the importance of our social presence during face-to-face learning, as the world continues to shift and technology becomes more prominent, we need to consider further enhancing our pedagogical practices for online learning.

Summarized Article:

Lim, J. R. N., Rosenthal, S., Sim, Y. J. M., Lim, Z.-Y., & Oh, K. R. (2021). Making online learning more satisfying: The effects of online-learning self-efficacy, social presence, and content structure. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 1–14.

Summary by: Nika Espinosa – Nika believes that personalized learning is at the heart of special education and strives to collaborate with educators in providing a holistic, personalized approach to supporting all learners through the MARIO Framework.

Research author Sonny Rosenthal, Ph.D., was involved in the final version of this summary.

Additional References:

  1. Rosenthal, S., & Walker, Z. (2020). Experiencing live composite video lectures: Comparisons with traditional lectures and common video lecture methods. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 14(1), A08. https://
  2. Wilson, K. E., Martinez, M., Mills, C., D’Mello, S., Smilek, D., & Risko, E. F. (2018). Instructor presence effect: Liking does not always lead to learning. Computers & Education, 122, 205–220.
  3. Artino, A. R. (2008). Motivational beliefs and perceptions of instructional quality: Predicting satisfaction with online training. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 24(3), 260–270.
  4. Lim, C. K. (2001). Computer self-efficacy, academic self-concept, and other predictors of satisfaction and future participation of adult distance learners. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(2), 41–51.
  5. Womble, J. C. (2007). E-learning: The relationship among learner satisfaction, self-efficacy, and usefulness. Alliant International University.

Key Takeaway: The pandemic has challenged educators to transform their teaching practices to suit a new learning environment—one where meaningful learning can take place with or without the presence of a teacher. Moving towards learner-centered instruction and well-designed online teaching should encourage students to remain motivated and engaged by providing diverse, collaborative learning activities and creating a space where students are empowered to take control over their own learning. —Taryn McBrayne

In his article, author John Andrew Cohen (Division of Learning and Teaching, Charles Sturt University) discusses the role that the COVID-19 pandemic has played in encouraging educators to re-evaluate their pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning. Cohen argues that while many companies and organizations needed to quickly transform their face-to-face classrooms to remain in business, by implementing the same instructional methods used in the physical classroom in an online setting, they may not be meeting the needs of their learners.

In an online classroom, teachers often have the flexibility to deliver instruction synchronously or asynchronously, meaning that the teacher may not always be physically present in the virtual class. Cohen cites Mottus et al. (2018)1 in emphasizing that while a teacher’s role as a “content delivery expert may be reduced in ubiquitous learning environments [such as online learning environments], the need for their pedagogical skills in effective facilitation has, if anything, increased in importance.” Cohen argues that online teaching needs to ensure that learning can occur, even without a teacher’s presence. Thus, as Cohen explains, traditional lecture-style teaching approaches may not be suitable.

The author highlights “Learner-Centered Teaching”2 as a useful framework for fostering productive learning environments without the direct presence of a teacher. Through sharing the power between the student and teacher, learners are “empowered to make decisions about when they learn, how they learn, where they learn, with whom they learn and on some occasions what they learn and how they are assessed.” In addition, researchers such as Weimer (2002)2 highlight the importance of sharing power, stating that “student motivation, confidence and enthusiasm for learning are all adversely affected when teaching staff control the process through which they learn.” Researchers Weimer (2002)2 and Shearer et al. (2019)3 also suggest that “learners are highly autonomous” and as a result, “instructors are facilitators, negotiators, and guides.” Here, the author recommends a shift in teaching design from direct instruction to self-direction, emphasizing the learning experience as opposed to solely the delivery of content.

Thus, Cohen explains that educators can build a strong student-centered online learning environment by providing a wide range of activities, ways for students to manage their own learning, and multiple opportunities to check for understanding. Ultimately, the author emphasizes that “learning design should aid the facilitation of learning—they should influence each other symmetrically, in a ‘hand in glove’ manner.”

Summarized Article: Cohen, J.A. (2021). A fit for purpose pedagogy: online learning designing and teaching, Development and Learning in Organizations: An International Journal, Vol. 35 (4), pp. 15-17.

Summary by: Taryn McBrayne—Taryn believes in the power of student voice and, through the MARIO Framework, strives to create more opportunities for both educators and students to regularly make use of this power.

Additional References:

1. Mottus, A., Kinshuk, N., Sabine, G., Uthman, A. and Ahmed, A. (2018), “Teacher facilitation support in ubiquitous learning environments”, Technology, Pedagogy and Education, Vol. 27 No. 5, pp. 549-570.

2. Weimer, M. (2002), Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

3. Shearer, R., Aldemirb L., Hitchcock T., Resig, J.J., Driver, J. and Kohler, M. (2019), “What students want: a vision of a future online learning experience grounded in distance education theory”, American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 34 No. 1, pp. 36-52.

Article Abstract

Design thinking is generally defined as an analytic and creative process that engages a person in opportunities to experiment, create and prototype models, gather feedback, and redesign. Several characteristics (e.g., visualization, creativity) that a good design thinker should possess have been identified from the literature. The primary purpose of this article is to summarize and synthesize the research on design thinking to (a) better understand its characteristics and processes, as well as the differences between novice and expert design thinkers, and (b) apply the findings from the literature regarding the application of design thinking to our educational system. The authors’ overarching goal is to identify the features and characteristics of design thinking and discuss its importance in promoting students’ problem-solving skills in the 21st century.

MARIO Connections

Razzouk and Shute’s study articulates how design thinking might be applied in educational settings. MARIO embraces this study’s exploration of how the incorporation of design thinking can influence student responses to challenge. 

Article Abstract

Erik de Corte describes a progression in which earlier behaviorism gave way increasingly to cognitive psychology with learning understood as information processing rather than as responding to stimuli. More active concepts of learning took hold (“constructivism”), and with “social constructivism” the terrain is not restricted to what takes place within individual minds but as the interaction between learners and their contextual situation. There has been a parallel move for research to shift from artificial exercises/situations to real-life learning in classrooms and hence to become much more relevant for education. The current understanding of learning, aimed at promoting 21st century or “adaptive” competence, is characterized as “CSSC learning”: “constructive” as learners actively construct their knowledge and skills; “self-regulated” with people actively using strategies to learn; “situated” and best understood in context rather than abstracted from environment; and “collaborative” not a solo activity.

MARIO Connections

De Corte’s work defines how learning is currently understood to be an active, self-regulated, social experience rooted in authentic context. MARIO, in all aspects, espouses this view of learning. It is fundamental to how MARIO defines the learner’s role.

Key Takeaway:  The reflections from students, teachers, and parents in this study show how the personalized learning experience not only produced expert learners but connected members of the learning community, which proved to be a meaningful and valuable experience to all involved. —Nika Espinosa

Summary: Suzanne Porath (Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS) and Dana Hagerman (College of Education and Professional Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Whitewater, WI) ask the question:

“In what ways, if any, can a personalized, learner-centered environment, as implemented at Rolling Hills Middle School, develop the principles of connected learning?”

According to Porath and Hagerman,

“Connected learning is a form of personalized learning that can renew classrooms and schools to not only focus on the needs and interests of the learner but can support learners in making connections with their experiences, peers and teachers, content standards, multiple disciplines, and the community.”

In their study, 55 8th grade students were provided with two, 2-hour classes. The first of two classes was a STEM class with a combination of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, and the second class was a humanities class incorporating social studies and literacies. The students spent the remainder of the day taking their specialist classes.

Feedback from students, parents, and teachers was analyzed by organizing comments into categories. In the first cycle of data analysis, a few categories emerged as most prevalent: family/community, peers, standards/learning, projects, student interests, and connections.

Key takeaways are focused on the principles and design of connected learning that relate to Wolfe and Poon’s Personalized Learning:1

  • Interest-powered: One of the early findings during the study was that a lot of students found it challenging to find their own interests. As a result, developing learner profiles to allow the students to reflect was something the teachers felt was necessary to implement the year after.
  • Peer-supported: Students and parents both highlighted the impact of the intentional development of a peer-supported learning community. One student reflected on the shift from working with just their friends at the beginning of the year to working with other students in the classroom. They realized that everyone works differently and found peers they worked well with.
  • Academically-oriented: Academic standards and aligned learning objectives were transparent to the students, and the students had a voice in determining when and how they were going to meet them. One student described the process as “learning how to take standards and take things that people want us to meet and create a unique project that will meet those.” By having teachers take on a facilitating role, students were able to design lessons that showcased their skills.
  • Production-centered: Student interest, choice, and peer support were integral to the projects throughout the year. There was a shift towards the end of the year from teacher-guided products to products that were less restricting, as students gained experiences in their personalized journeys
  •  Shared purpose: Teachers and students both recognized that standards needed to be achieved and that there was a shared purpose of learning. Learning experiences moved from teacher-developed to student-created. A culture was created where student opinion was factored into the development of creating these environments.
  • Openly networked: Porath and Hagerman quotes Ito et al., “Learners flourish and realize their potential when they can connect their interests and social engagement to academic studies, civic engagement, and career opportunity.”2 Combining different subjects, such as science and math and humanities and language arts, provides the students with opportunities to make connections in their learning.

Article Summarized:

Porath, S., & Hagerman, D. (2021). Becoming connected learners through personalized learning. Middle School Journal, 52(2), 26-37.

Summary By: Nika Espinosa – Nika believes that personalized learning is at the heart of special education and strives to collaborate with educators in providing a holistic, personalized approach to supporting all learners through the MARIO Framework.

Additional References:

  1. Wolfe, R. E., & Poon, J. D. (2015). Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Teaching. Jobs For the Future.
  2. Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., … & Watkins, S. C. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

Article Abstract

This individual differences study examined the separability of three often postulated executive functions-mental set shifting (“Shifting”), information updating and monitoring (“Updating”), and inhibition of prepotent responses (“Inhibition”)-and their roles in complex “frontal lobe” or “executive” tasks. One hundred thirty-seven college students performed a set of relatively simple experimental tasks that are considered to predominantly tap each target executive function, as well as a set of frequently used executive tasks: the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST), Tower of Hanoi (TOH), random number generation (RNG), operation span, and dual tasking. Confirmatory factor analysis indicated that the three target executive functions are moderately correlated with one another, but are clearly separable. Moreover, structural equation modeling suggested that the three functions contribute differentially to performance on complex executive tasks. Specifically, WCST performance was related most strongly to Shifting, TOH to Inhibition, RNG to Inhibition and Updating, and operation span to Updating. Dual task performance was not related to any of the three target functions. These results suggest that it is important to recognize both the unity and diversity of executive functions and that latent variable analysis is a useful approach to studying the organization and roles of executive functions.

MARIO Connections

This study enriched our understanding of executive functions and how they interact or operate independently depending upon the task a student engages in. This increased awareness is present in both the design of our course elementary EF skills module and throughout the MARIO Framework when self-directed learning is referenced.

Article Abstract

Zimmerman outlines his personal connections to his work and motivations for engaging in this type of research, stating, “My career path to understanding the source and nature of human learning started with an interest in social processes, especially cognitive modeling, and has led to the exploration of self-regulatory processes. My investigation of these processes has prompted the development of several social cognitive models: a triadic model that synthesized covert, behavioral, and environmental sources of personal feedback, a multilevel model of training that begins with observational learning and proceeds sequentially to self-regulation, and a cyclical phase model that depicts the interaction of metacognitive and motivational processes during efforts to learn.” In this article, empirical support for each of these models is discussed, including its implications for formal and informal forms of instruction. This self-regulation research has revealed that students who set superior goals proactively, monitor their learning intentionally, use strategies effectively, and respond to personal feedback adaptively not only attain mastery more quickly, but also are more motivated to sustain their efforts to learn. Recommendations for future research are made.

MARIO Connections

Zimmerman’s work is key to MARIO’s vision of self-directed learning and the process through which metacognition and metacomprehension develop. Throughout the entire Framework, one can find echoes of Zimmerman’s discussion of the development of self-regulation.