Self-Regulation to Combat Mind Wandering During Self-Directed Learning

Apr 28 2022

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.

Findings

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

Considerations & Implications for Practice

Results warranted consideration of the following implications for practice:  

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.
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