Glossary: distraction

What makes an effective learner?1

  • Techniques – mind maps, study skills
  • Conditions – knowing when and how
  • Habits of mind – dispositions
  • Pleasures – values and interests

These can all be cultivated, and develop over different time scales…

One way of thinking about what ‘learning power’ consists of:

  • Resilience – locking on to learning
  • Resourcefulness – knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do
  • Reflection – strategies and self-awareness
  • Relationships – learning alone and with others

And resilience, stickability and tenacity, is the skill which allows a learner to handle distraction. Among other skills, distraction is listed with the following:

  • Tolerating confusion and frustration
  • Being patient – ‘negative capability’
  • Enjoying challenge
  • Being curious - asking questions
  • Getting rapt
  • Minimizing distraction

Multi-tasking affects the brain's learning systems, and as a result, we do not learn as well when we are distracted, UCLA psychologists report this week in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.2

"Multi-tasking adversely affects how you learn," said Russell Poldrack, UCLA associate professor of psychology and co-author of the study. "Even if you learn while multi-tasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily. Our study shows that to the degree you can learn while multi-tasking, you will use different brain systems.

"The best thing you can do to improve your memory is to pay attention to the things you want to remember," Poldrack added. "Our data support that. When distractions force you to pay less attention to what you are doing, you don't learn as well as if you had paid full attention."

“Tasks that require more attention, such as learning calculus or reading Shakespeare, will be particularly adversely affected by multi-tasking,” Poldrack said.

This article 3 reports on a study that found that concentration and distraction compete for attention. In order for a presentation to be successful, the learners attending must focus on your presentation. That attention is dependent on your brain’s perception of the dangers perceived to be present in your environment.

In a 2007 study, Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported results directly relating to attention. Using monkeys as test subjects, Miller and his team discovered that two separate areas in the brain are responsible for concentration and distraction. Willful, goal-oriented attention is what we hope for in a classroom as learners focus on the subject at hand. Reflexive, reactionary-based attention is what we sometimes get as learners become distracted by sensory information. Reflexive attention is likely necessary for survival. It will override willful attention when the brain feels threatened.

As Miller explained,

"If something leaps out of the bush at me, that's going to be really important and I have to react to it right away. Your brain is equipped to notice things salient in the environment." When you consider that the classroom can be a scary place for many people, refocusing reflexive attention is often the key to effective learning."

  1. references

  2. 1From “Building learning power: How to help young people become better real-life learners.” Guy Claxton, University of Bristol. Accessed 4/20/2011.
  3. 2From ScienceDaily - July 26, 2006:
  4. 3Lenn Millbower, "Concentration and distraction compete for attention during learning,” August 6th, 2010. Accessed April 20, 2011:

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