In the Classroom: Let Students’ Minds Wander (But Not Too Far)

Let Students’ Minds Wander (But Not Too Far)

How long can you stay focused? According to researchers, nobody is immune to the occasional daydream. In fact, many of us know all too well how difficult it can be to rein in our imaginations and pay attention to the task at hand.

It may come as a surprise that these moments of “zoning out” actually help us think and work more efficiently. Although daydreaming may feel like a break or even a waste of time, it really plays an important function in our cognition and problem-solving.  

That’s not to say mind-wandering is always helpful. After all, we still need to pay attention when we are receiving new information or completing complex tasks, and letting our minds roam freely can cause challenges when we’re supposed to be focusing on something else—for example, listening to a lecture or reading a book.

As educators, we know the importance of helping our students pay attention to new material, focus on assignments, and stay engaged with their reading. However, it’s also important to know how mind-wandering can help our students internalize new information and produce novel and creative ideas. Read on to learn more about why students’ minds wander and how this can help make them more effective learners.


How often do our minds wander?

Even when we are trying to stay engaged in an activity, our minds are still prone to wander a significant portion of the time. A recent study by Sidney D’Mello of University of Colorado Boulder found that students’ minds wander twenty to twenty-five percent of the time when learning through instructional software. According to D’Mello, previous research estimated that mind-wandering occurs up to thirty percent of the time when reading and forty percent when listening to a lecture. At first glance, this may seem like a statement on the effectiveness of educational technology, but it also offers insight into the efficiency of the human brain. Even if students’ minds are “only” wandering for twenty percent of the lesson, that’s still a large amount of time not to be attending to instruction.

So, should educators be focusing on ways to eliminate mind-wandering? Quite the contrary. According to Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman of New York University, mind-wandering “is where things like problem solving, creativity, goal driven thought, future planning, seeing the perspective of another person, and so on...find space to exist.” For this reason, Kaufman encourages people to make time for mind-wandering, particularly when facing a difficult problem. Many of us have experienced overthinking a situation only to have the solution pop into our heads shortly after we begin thinking about something else. As educators, we can show students how to purposefully set aside time to free their thoughts and make room for new ideas.

Although both focused attention and mind-wandering are important, they have very different benefits. Thus, the key lies in recognizing when students need to focus and retain information and when they need time for creative thinking.


Plan for success

When planning lessons, think about whether the goal is for students to receive and retain information or to analyze, connect, and create. Often, educators might structure their lessons so that tasks requiring focused attention are at the beginning of class time while creative or problem-solving tasks are at the end. While there’s an obvious logical progression to presenting new material first and asking students to make connections to the information afterward, this structure doesn’t leave much room for useful mind-wandering.

Take this example: For a fifty-minute class period, a literacy educator might plan a five-minute warm-up activity to review the previous day’s material, a fifteen-minute lecture on the historical context of a story, fifteen minutes to read a short text, and fifteen minutes to break into small groups and reflect on the story’s historical significance. That’s thirty-five minutes of focused attending before students have the opportunity to take a break from the material, discuss their opinions, and make connections. In some cases, students might not be able to focus that long before their thoughts begin to drift.

Educators can make space for helpful mind-wandering by varying the class schedule. For instance, inserting a free-thinking activity between a lecture and a reading activity would give students a chance to think over what they’ve just learned before diving back into another receptive learning exercise. If changing the schedule isn’t possible, educators can still teach strategies to help students stay focused when necessary and build in free-thinking opportunities when it’s time to analyze, strategize, or problem solve.

Let students’ minds wander…

In a Harvard Business Review article, Dr. Josh Davis noted that mind-wandering is especially useful as a period of “creative incubation” that allows us to generate ideas or solve complex problems. Here are a few ideas for incorporating creative thinking time in the classroom:

  • Periodically allow students a few minutes to free-write their thoughts and ideas during class.

  • Ask students to construct visual dream boards or idea boards before beginning a writing project.

  • Give students time to walk around the classroom, change their seats, or simply take a few minutes to stretch.

…but not too far!

Another benefit to making time for mind-wandering: Taking a break may improve student focus when it’s time to switch gears and listen to instruction. An Edutopia article detailed how this and other strategies can help increase students’ attention spans. Before beginning tasks during which students need to stay attentive—for example, reading new information—give them strategies to help improve their focus. For instance:

  • Before starting an activity, ask students to remove distractions by clearing their desks, sharpening their pencils, and putting away technology that isn’t being used for the lesson.

  • Encourage students to ask questions during lectures and lessons.

  • "Check in” with students by making eye contact and asking questions to ensure they are focused and engaged.

Balancing lessons that require focused attention with opportunities to let students' minds wander freely is the key to making the most of learning time. While students are often required to stay on task in order to receive new information, it’s also important to give their minds free rein to work through problems and create new solutions. Instead of fighting mind-wandering, embrace free-thinking time as an enhancement to learning, not a distraction.


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