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.01 Jun 2023
Self-Regulation to Combat Mind Wandering During Self-Directed Learning
April 27, 2022
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 Perspectives||Objective & Intervention Strategies|
|Current concerns hypothesis: Mind wandering occurs when personal concerns and goals are more valued than the primary task||Increase 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 control||Use 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.
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.
- 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.