Are Your Students Paying Attention?

Posted July 25, 2016

By Jeff Wammes

On a quick read of some educational research, you might be left with the feeling that university students don’t have much of an attention span. Recent reports that about 60% of online students abandon video lectures in under 10 minutes (1), and countless studies showing that student attentiveness fades quickly into mind wandering (2,3) have not helped debunk this comparison either. In video recorded lectures, staged live lectures, and even selected authentic live lectures, mind wandering tends to increase quickly over time. So, we were saddled with a critical disconnect: On one hand, there was loads of research showing that mind wandering, or inattention, increases pathologically over time within lectures. On the other hand, we had our own anecdotal observations that while students obviously (and unfortunately for instructors) had a base rate of inattention, it didn’t seem to increase all that dramatically over time. Thankfully, we hadn’t really seen an increase in that glazed over look that every instructor or speaker dreads. Yes, the telltale signs of mind wandering were present, but no, they did not seem to be noticeably or dramatically increasing, despite what the in-lab research seems to say. We wanted to explore mind wandering in a real, live, lecture setting to resolve this discrepancy.

Our Studies

When students are actually enrolled in a course, the outcome has very real consequences for their futures. Studying attention during staged lectures in the lab might lead to quite different results than studying the real thing in the wild. Some researchers have looked at the interplay between attention and retention in actual lectures (2,4,5), but few have looked at how this behavior changes over time, or on a scale larger than one lecture, or a few lectures. So, we designed a few long-term experiments, conducted in actual live lectures over entire semesters. Instructors often use clicker remotes to ask quiz questions during lectures, both to measure attendance and to check understanding. We simply piggy-backed on this technology and asked participants to tell us, using a quick button press, whether or not they were mind wandering, whether they were doing so intentionally, or the degree to which they were mind wandering just before they were asked. Our motivations were mainly to observe and describe the way students’ minds wander in lectures. Here is what we found (6,7):

While we might not be able to prevent mind wandering, we can work to understand it better and how it impacts student learning. [Image: Tadeej,, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Rates of Unintentional Mind Wandering Are Relatively Low

Mind wandering is usually described as a failure of attention that occurs even though people are trying their best to pay attention. But, recent research shows that people often choose to mind wander, or mind wander intentionally during boring tasks. Surprisingly, in our lecture study, students were mind wandering about a third of the time during lectures, but more than half of this mind wandering was intentional. This is a different issue than the previously conceptualized student who helplessly succumbs to inattention. Instead, it seems that students are purposely tuning out. This might be an issue of motivation. Our research has repeatedly shown that motivation is related to mind wandering, especially of the intentional sort. One way of combatting this intentional mind wandering might be incentivizing student attention. This could be accomplished quite easily by making in-class quiz scores contribute directly to the students’ final grades. In any case, the large proportion of intentional episodes of mind wandering tells us that in reducing mind wandering during lectures, a fruitful target for intervention might be the intrinsic motivation of the student to retain information in class.

Mind Wandering Does Not Increase Over Time!

Unlike most research exploring attention during lectures, we found essentially no evidence that mind wandering increased over time within a lecture, in any of our three studies. The rates of intentional or unintentional mind wandering did not increase, and neither did students’ depth of mind wandering (the degree to which they were mind wandering). Of course, this does not mean that no students increased in mind wandering over time, but on the whole, rates and depth of mind wandering remained surprisingly stable.

However, mind wandering did increase over the course of the term or semester. People have a tendency to mind wander about current concerns or issues in their lives. With deadlines and exams steadily stacking up, people are likely dwelling more on those concerns, leading to a greater incidence of mind wandering as the term marches on.

Effects on Academic Performance Do Occur, But Are Not Catastrophic!

At the end of each class in our study, we quizzed students about information taken from the lecture. We mainly asked questions about slides that the professor spoke about right before, and right after mind wandering responses were given. This allowed us to get a really good sense of the immediate consequences of students’ zone outs. We were also able to get a sense of the long-term consequences by looking at students’ final grades in the course.

The immediate consequences of mind wandering were clear! In both studies where information was available, people did worse on quiz questions based on material they mind-wandered through and their scores were actually lower as they mind wandered to greater degrees. Also, the more people reported mind wandering overall, the worse they did on quizzes overall. Mind wandering was associated with poorer final grades, but the impact was not that large. To put this in perspective, a 10% increase in mind wandering rate was, on average, associated with only roughly a 2.3% decrease in final grade.

The Differences between Live and Video Recorded Lectures Are Important!

We showed a new group of students a video-recording of one of the lectures. So, this new group viewed the exact same lecture, and told us about their mind wandering at the exact same times as the in-class group. The only difference was that the new group watched the video lecture in the lab, while the original group viewed the lecture live.

The results were striking! We were surprised to see that the new group, the people who viewed the video lecture, did show an increase in mind wandering over time, but the group who viewed it live in class did not. Even more interesting is that half of the people in the new group were students who were currently taking the class that the lecture was taken from (in a subsequent term), and the other half had never been enrolled. There was essentially no difference in the trend in mind wandering between these groups. This tells us two things. The first is that research on mind wandering in the lab might not so readily translate to real-life situations, so we need to be careful in drawing general conclusions from these studies. The second is that it might be much more difficult for students’ to maintain their attention when they are not physically present in a classroom. These things, especially the latter, are very important for instructors to consider when using online or video-lecture content.

What’s Next?

We have our work cut out for us in uncovering the reasons for our findings, but some studies are underway. These look both at the role of motivation in dictating mind wandering, and the importance of instructor-student interaction in rate-changes in mind wandering. We are currently investigating mind wandering during lectures using a small desktop app that independently monitors students’ attention by showing them a pop-up response window during class, and we also video-recorded some of these lectures. We can then compile students’ responses and associate them with students’ class-by-class alertness, sleep and motivation, as well as instructors’ movement, hand-waving, and speech inflections. It is our hope that we can use this to determine what people on both sides of the projection screen (instructor and student) can do to minimize inattention in the classroom, hopefully improving learning and retention along the way.


Jeff Wammes received his B.A. from Western University in London, Ontario, and is currently completing his PhD at the University of Waterloo. Jeff's research focuses very generally on the intersection between attention and memory. This includes exploring how mind wandering influences performance in academic settings, as well as looking at the detrimental effects of dual-tasking on memory, and how these effects can be alleviated using encoding strategies.

Thanks to those who collaborated on the work (alphabetical):

  • Nigel Bosch
  • Pierre Boucher
  • Allan Cheyne
  • Caitlin Mills
  • Paul Seli
  • Daniel Smilek

1.Kim, J., Guo, P. J., Seaton, D. T., Mitros, P., Gajos, K. Z., & Miller, R. C. (2014, March). Understanding in-video dropouts and interaction peaks inonline lecture videos. In Proceedings of the first ACM conference on Learning@ scale conference (pp. 31-40). ACM.

2.Young, M., Robinson, S., & Alberts, P. (2009). Students pay attention!: Combating the vigilance decrement to improve learning during lectures. Active Learning in Higher Education, 10. 41-55.

3.Risko, E., Anderson, N., Sarwal, A., Engelhardt, M., & Kingstone, A. (2012). Everyday Attention: Variation in Mind Wandering and Memory in a Lecture. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26, 234-42.

4.Lindquist, S. I., & McLean, J. P. (2011). Daydreaming and its correlates in an educational environment. Learning and Individual Differences, 21(2), 158-167.

5.Varao-Sousa, T. L., & Kingstone, A. (2015). Memory for lectures: How lecture format impacts the learning experience. PloS one, 10(11).

6.Wammes, J. D., Boucher, P. O., Seli, P., Cheyne, J. A., & Smilek, D. (2016). Mind wandering during lectures I: Changes in rates across an entire semester. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2(1), 13.

7.Wammes, J. D., Seli, P., Cheyne, J. A., Boucher, P. O., & Smilek, D. (2016). Mind wandering during lectures II: Relation to academic performance. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2(1), 33.