Interest vs. Distraction
© 16 Aug 2016 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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Does adding bells and whistles to a class improve student learning?


Several years ago, when writing a “‍teaching philosophy statement‍” as part of the academic job application process, I distilled many ideas I had heard into the following sentence.

Learning is the result of repeated application of attention to instructional materials.

Not a perfect definition, and later drafts of that document removed this aphorism completely, but I do think it succinctly presents the aspects of learning that have bearing on the topic I want to discuss today. That topic can be introduced via the following question:

If you can make your class more fun, should you do so?

In some extreme cases, the answer is obvious. In an extremely dry class, attention wanders far afield and learning does not result; adding a touch of interest and fun helps recapture focus and increase learning. On the other hand, if you wear clown makeup and juggle and tell jokes and use the side of a wildebeest as your chalkboard students attention may be on you, but it will not be on the lesson; being a bit more tame would reduce distractions and increase learning.

In one model of the ideal classroom, the instructional aspects of the instructional material holds the entirety of student attention. However, that ideal is never fully achievable. Attention is requested by many other things: parsing the instructor’s accent, being distracted by the other students, worrying about how bad it will be if the next exams is as bad as the last one, noticing how the hand is cramping from writing too many notes, deciding where on the page of notes to put that last statement from the instructor, griping to yourself about the temperature in the classroom, and so on. There is always some of what Cognitive Load Theory terms “‍extraneous load‍” on the learner’s mind.

But suppose we could drop that extraneous load to zero. Would that be a wise thing to do? Too much focused attention can be fatiguing and reduce mental capacity. This issue comes up in a few of the most focus-capturing teaching practices; for example, the NCSU video on pair programming in education points out that pair programing is highly productive, “‍but this can take a toll on your brain‍” and breaks are needed to continue being effectively. We don’t seem to have enough control over the level of learner focus to know if period of intense focus punctuated with breaks is more or less efficient than longer periods of less intense focus where such breaks are not needed.

However, in most teaching situations I have been a part of, either as a student or a teacher, the level of focus and attention seems to err on the side of too little rather than too much. Hence the question, will making things more fun also increase learning?

I do not know of any conclusive evidence on this topic. So far as I have read and heard, it appears to be one of the open questions of education. However, informally I have found that the answer depends a great deal on the students.

I am a rather intense student. I approach learning with a single-minded determination and prefer instruction to be delivered in an simple and unadorned fashion. Breaks, jokes, images, and the like all seem to me to be unnecessary distractions. And the same is true for some of my students. Some students are focused by personality, but even those who aren’t have a preference for unadorned instruction when they see the knowledge I am teaching as intrinsically important and useful. Conversely, students who don’t really care about the material, or who see it as maybe useful some day but not that important, or who simply have a more relaxed outlook on the world often do better in a more varied, broken-up, fun environment. In the classes I typically teach, most students seem to be in that fun-appreciating group.

So, how much fun is the right amount? As with so many aspects of teaching, the answer has to be adapted to the class, and re-adapted every time you teach the same course because the students change and (to a lesser extent) so do you. However, in my experience most classes are too direct for most students. Boredom and wandering minds tend to be more of a problem than in-class distractions.

There is one kind of instruction that cuts through this balancing act. Sometimes—not often, even among the best teachers I have ever met, but sometimes—a teacher can explain concepts that are so new in a way that is so clear that the learning itself becomes the best entertainment. Eyes stare, hands stop fidgeting, people even stop shifting in their seats as every mind is fully engaged for learning and pleasure on the instruction itself. I have seen these moments arise out of the most direct, unadorned teaching and out of highly colorful, fun teaching, but once it arises whatever color there is is just background to the main show.

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