TeachingFilter: How do I help a student whose mind wanders?
January 23, 2004 11:36 AM   Subscribe

Teaching question: how do I help a student whose mind wanders?

I've been teaching for 10 years, and while my students and evals tell me I do a great job, I think there's always room for improvement.

I've noticed that there's a certain type of student that I have a hard time helping: the type with the wandering mind. Let's say I have a three-step procedure that I'm teaching: (1) press the red button; (2) wait three seconds; (3) press the green button. The problematic student will hear step one, but then his mind will lead him -- generally through a meandering road of word association -- to miss steps two and three. Now this is fairly easy to deal with if he talks about his thoughts:

Me: first, press the red button.
Student: What about the red slider on the other side of the screen. Can you press that instead? Can you press anything that's red?

If there's a short answer, I can say it and then get the student back on track. Otherwise, if answering the question would seriously derail the class, I can say something like, "good question. let me answer it in a few minutes. for the moment, I'd like to continue with step two..."

The problem comes when the student is constantly playing word-association in his head. In this case, I can't tell exactly when he's gone off track.

By the way, I don't think this mental wandering is a sign of low-intelligence. In fact, I do it myself. Which is one of the reasons why I had such a hard time in school. Ironically, I became a teacher partly because I never had a teacher who understood how my mind worked. I thought I could do a better job. But I would have just as hard a time getting through to the younger me than my teachers.

I think the REAL answer to this is self-paced learning. I do fine when a teacher tells me the goal of the lesson and then lets me learn at my one pace, using reference books and such. My mind WILL eventually get back from its travels and focus on the task at hand -- and some of the stuff found on the travels might even be of use.

Unfortunately, there's no time for this in the sort of fast-paced, corporate training I have to do.
posted by grumblebee to Education (33 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My piddling insight: I'm judging entirely from your example and similar experiences that have happened in cases where I have been pressed into service as a trainer or teacher, but are you perhaps focusing too much on "word association" or projecting the basis of your own distractions on to your students? In your example, the student doesn't sound distracted; instead he sounds thoroughly interested in the subject, and perhaps finding the pace of your instruction a little slow.

But then, perhaps I'm projecting as I've been frustrated by the slow pace of nearly all instruction I've received since I was young, up to and including a well-designed and quite competently presented (but pokey) professional course from Sun Educational Services just a couple of weeks ago.
posted by majick at 12:04 PM on January 23, 2004

Great question! Disclaimer: I've no formal training in education, other than having been a student myself.

I don't know if the issue is so much word association as it is the human instinct to pursue a mystery, and word association is just one of the ways to find mysteries to explore.* Perhaps presenting your topic as a mystery would interest them enough to stay on topic and not pursue other mysteries?

That "Gee, whiz!" factor in uncovering the truth has got to have a powerful addictive property to it that would encourage this behavior. Maybe it should be curbed in primary school! ;-)

* Why their looking for mysteries rather than paying attention I'll leave for another day. Boredom is probably part of it... majick might be onto something there.
posted by jwells at 12:14 PM on January 23, 2004

Also, since you're talking about "fast paced corporate training," you should look at this problem with the awareness that what you're doing -- corporate training limited in scope and depth -- is somewhat at cross purposes with some students' expectations. A handful of your students are showing up to be educated, to learn about the subject, but you're training them instead. The distinction is noteworthy especially in technical training where true comprehension of the subject matter would require more foundational understanding than a training session can give.
posted by majick at 12:25 PM on January 23, 2004

I don't know how much help this is, but a friend of mine has a son with this exact problem (he has trouble following a chain of instructions, because he gets distracted). What his teacher does is make an instruction sheet for him (or gets him to do it), where he writes down what he is to do first, second, third, etc., and has him concentrate on doing one thing at a time (he checks off each task as he does it). It seems to really help him keep on track, I know you're not dealing with children, but something along these lines might help (maybe a flipchart or something?).
posted by biscotti at 1:07 PM on January 23, 2004

Three words: neon green codpiece.
posted by antifreez_ at 1:14 PM on January 23, 2004

Generally speaking, I would advise you to use physical objects to represent abstractions when possible. It sounds like the kid has a very active abstract faculty and imagination. Try to keep that engaged, but give him a tactile focus to ground him.

It can be very simple, like squares of colored felt. Before doing task 1, tap the red square; before doing task two, put the green square up against the red square and tap it; and so on.

The cognitive reasons that this helps (for those it does help) is complicated and actually a little beyond me, but I've seen it work wonders on ADD kids.

Remember that the mind/body dichotomy is false. Leaning happens in our entire bodies and benefits from full engagement.
posted by squirrel at 2:03 PM on January 23, 2004

I'm wondering if you're telling too much and not showing enough?

Some of us are visual learners, and if a teacher/trainer is just speaking about something, and there's nothing concrete to look at related to it, or to focus on, we drift. (even stinky powerpoint projections or xeroxed handouts helps with this, i find.) If there are manuals connected to whatever you're teaching, saying something like, "you can see the process/instructions/example on page 7" will help, and will give the student something palpable to connect to what you're saying.

in other words: what squirrel's saying : >
posted by amberglow at 2:18 PM on January 23, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks for all the ideas so far. I realize that I focussed too much on "word association" in my post. That's really a side issue. The general problem involves imaginative thinkers whose minds don't naturally constrain themselves to a step 1, step 2, step 3... type of procedure.

I actually HATE forcing anyone into 1, 2, 3 mindset. A wandering, connection-making mind is much more interesting and fun. But for the limited-range training I'm employed to do, it's unfortunately necessary that I keep the concepts running down a narrow track.

This can be VERY hard when teaching software apps, because most moden programs are so busy. There are buttons and doohickies all over the screen. An inventive, imaginative person is going to continually wonder what button B does while you're trying to explain the function of button A.

I am SO much like this that -- though I TEACH computer classes -- I find it almost impossible to TAKE them. Once I notice button B, I'm not even going to be able to think about button A until I first click button B and see what it does. My exploration of button B might take me an hour, but after satisfying myself about its function, I WILL return to button A. So I absolutely will learn what I'm supposed to learn -- but I have to do it on my own, because in class there's not enough time for all my side-wanderings.

Maybe the answer to my questions is: short-length classes just don't work for everybody. But as a professional educator who is forced to teach short-length classes, I refuse to settle for that answer. I will keep trying to reach ALL my students, even if I die without ever succeeding.
posted by grumblebee at 2:30 PM on January 23, 2004

Response by poster: Amberglow, I 100% agree with your idea. In fact, I'd go further and state that a good teach continually switches which sence he appeals to: he gives auditory info, he gives visual info, he gives tactile info, he gives purely intellectual info, etc. Because each student learns things differently.

I know this and try to always do it. But it's good to be reminded of it from time-to-time.
posted by grumblebee at 2:33 PM on January 23, 2004

As someone who finds it difficult to sit through short-form instruction, my suggestion for helping out these explorative types is to find flexibility in your training method to allow students to clue in to the rigid path of instruction before you get into detail. Whiteboard steps 1, 2, and 3, explaining the procedure as a whole in advance walking through the steps themselves.

Overviews allow wanderers to go ahead and do their thing, fiddling with X and Z, without losing track of where you're taking the class. You get the extra pain of keeping these folks in sync with the lockstep and cleaning up when they push (or start asking questions about) BIG RED BUTTON Q, but at lest you're getting the procedural information in front of them before they start exploring. Your job gets a lot harder, not easier, making accomodations for explorative learners rather than clamping them to a linear curriculum paced for common denominators, but if effectiveness is what you're after, the pain's worth it.
posted by majick at 2:45 PM on January 23, 2004

Keep them near you, at the front of the class. Noticed I paid attention better sitting up front..yet the peanut gallery suffered. Sure you would have all your students at the front of the class, but there is a room limit.
posted by thomcatspike at 2:47 PM on January 23, 2004

Also so you don't waste all your time with one student. Give your lesson, then have a small review with the student or group of students that need that extra attention. Went Carden grade school, in groups the slower students had more time in this setting. The out come was at the end of the year most students were near the same educated level.
posted by thomcatspike at 2:51 PM on January 23, 2004

i'm a bit confused who the target audience is. if it's normal self-aware adults then can't you explain to them that the they can play with the other buttons later, but for now they should pay attention to you? you've got to show them how to do certain tasks, time is limited, and they should shut up, concentrate, and get on with it.

of course you can't do that to a child, but surely an adult can understand?
posted by andrew cooke at 2:52 PM on January 23, 2004

Response by poster: Can't you explain to them that the they can play with the other buttons later, but for now they should pay attention to you? you've got to show them how to do certain tasks, time is limited, and they should shut up, concentrate, and get on with it.

I teach adults. Andrew, this sounds like good advice, but after teaching for a long time, I've found that MANY adults have a hard time staying focussed. My guess is that you're not one of them, so it's probably hard for you to see what the big deal is.

Of course, I could take your advice, tell them to keep to the task-at-hand and then tell myself that it's their own fault if they don't.

But I try not to opperate that way. I play a mental game in which every student who fails to learn from one of my classes does do because *I* have failed as a teacher. It's never their fault, it's always my fault.

While I know that this isn't literally true, it forces me to improve my teaching methods and generally problem-solve about teaching.

I don't whip myself or get angry with myself if a student fails to learn -- but I DO take responsibility for it and try to do better with the next, similar student.

My rough un-scientific guess would be that 15% of the people I teach have wandering minds. Most people who DON'T have wandering minds seem to have very little time for those who do. The typical attitude (which I'm not saying is yours, andrew -- though it might be) is "why don't they just buck up!" Many of us WOULD if we could. We just can't control (or don't know how to control) the wondering of our thoughts.
posted by grumblebee at 3:01 PM on January 23, 2004

also, maybe you could make sure to always use examples that are specifically applicable to the people you're training? If it's accountants, use something that directly relates to how they'll use the software; if it's sales people, the same, etc? For me, being at a training session where the example is worlds away from how I'll be using the software makes it way less interesting and relevant.
(And I'm a lot like you, grumblebee--i get in trouble during training if there's a machine in front of me with the program--because i'm exploring on my own rather than waiting for the instructor to say, Now login....now click on "new project"...now click on "template"....zzzzzzz)

and i like thomcat's idea about after-training for people you see weren't paying attention during the regular training.
posted by amberglow at 3:21 PM on January 23, 2004

This is a HUGE problem for me. I can't learn in a class or lecture environment no matter how hard I try and focus. I'm not stupid but my mind wanders and, like a runaway train, its impossible to stop. Anyways, here's some things that have helped me.

1. reverse task
I have a problem understanding a presentation without knowing where we're going. The reverse would be "Here's what we want to achieve. To do so, we need to push the green button and, before doing that, we need to push the red button"

2. visuals
Visuals give me something to lock onto. I can hold the image in my mind and use that to 'attach' the other ideas that are being presented to me. One thing that helps is creating a visual analogy even if one doesnt exist. Energy is like a liquid that can be passed around. An algorithm is like a factory assembly line. etc.

3. bottom up not top-down
introduce the basic concepts first and then build up from there. I know this seems obvious but many instructors start off with as you mention "just push red then push green and then your laundry is clean'. This is horribly distracting. I'd prefer to get the basics first of what the red button does, at least in general, what the green button does and then show how the combination can possibly produce the result.

Frankly though, the way I got through college was by skipping lectures and focusing on texts and supplementary materials. I was kind of screwed when lectures covered stuff not covered elsewhere and had to depend on good friends of mine, who took notes, to explain it to me in sort of a question/answer format (which also helped us both actually understand the material)
posted by vacapinta at 4:19 PM on January 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if this is relevant, but I know that when I'm a student in the sort of class you're teaching I get rapidly bored. I imagine that to the teacher it will look as if my mind is wandering -- it is, but only because the pace of training is going way too slow for me.

When I had to deliver some training, I handled the problem of people like me by making the notes in such a way that while the right-hand page would be the step-by-step "training", the left-hand pages were supplementary material, explanations and "education". This meant the people who just wanted to know what to do could follow the training with me, and the folks who loathe to be told "press this and be quiet" could read through the left-hand pages and understand *why* they're pressing that.

The left-hand people are now by far the better users, of course.
posted by bonaldi at 5:29 PM on January 23, 2004

So, grumblebee, this is a class (can we assume a college class?) where you are teaching a group of adults how to use one specific application? And your problem is that you have one student who invariably asks questions that seem to be irrelevant to the "track" you are trying to keep everybody on and it's driving you (and the other students) crazy, yes?
posted by jaronson at 6:29 PM on January 23, 2004

I struggle with this problem too, and I'm learning a lot from this thread. Lots of good advice here, especially about starting by explaining the motivation for the info your going to present, and providing lots of supplemental material for people who don't want to go at the same pace as everyone else.

You also might want to look at making the training more focused on the tasks that people want to be able to do. A lot of training is pretty theoretical and teaches a lot of features that people don't actually need to use, so their minds go looking for more interesting and relevant things. Why are people in your training? Are there things they need to accomplish, or are they just there because they need to say they've got the training? I always start a class by asking people why they're there and what they plan to do with the knowledge afterwards. That allows me to change the emphasis and throw in some offhand comments that make it relevant to their needs.

Also, never be afraid to say "let's take this offline". When I have a class with people with widely varying levels of ability and interest, I make the breaks a bit longer and take care of people outside of the main class. Sometimes people just need you to recognize the particularities of their learning style and devote some attention to their particular questions.
posted by fuzz at 7:55 PM on January 23, 2004

You might check out Gregorc's theory of Mind Styles as a possible way of clarifying just what the student is doing and why (no guarantees, though). There's a good overview at

posted by tspae at 7:57 PM on January 23, 2004

Response by poster: jaronson, no: nobody is being driven crazy as far as I know. The problem is this:

1. students with wandering minds aren't learning what they are supposed to be learning in the class.

2. as the teacher, I WANT them to learn what they aren't learning in the class. I want to change my teaching style so that, if possible, they do learn.

3. from what the wandering-mind students say, they too want to learn what they are supposed to learn, but they can't figure out how.

I don't teach in a college. If I did, I could solve this problem by allowing students to self-study or I could deal with it during office hours. As I said earlier in the thread, this is corporate training, in which I'm given two-to-four days to teach a piece of software, like Photoshop or Flash.
posted by grumblebee at 10:27 PM on January 23, 2004

I love bonaldi's idea of the left-hand/right-hand pages, and vacapinta's "reverse task". I'm sort of like you, grumblebee - a good teacher, but often a terrible student, and almost 100% a self-learner. I can imagine so many classroom situations in which those two techniques would have made a huge difference to me.
posted by taz at 10:40 PM on January 23, 2004

ooh- I found a site that might give you a lot of food for thought: chemical engineering professor Richard Felder has a lot of information on his site about learning styles, including a look at several learning style models and applications, plus a "teaching to all types" roundup of techniques; an index of learning styles page, and a learning style personal questionnaire that is automatically scored.
posted by taz at 11:25 PM on January 23, 2004

Unfortunately, there's no time for this in the sort of fast-paced, corporate training I have to do. (I thought that was a sarcastic swipe at our public ed system. :-)

OK, my bad. Is your situation like New Horizons?
posted by jaronson at 4:02 AM on January 24, 2004

OK, I did a little research and now I know your situation.

It sounds as though you are very good at what you do, grumblebee. And, while I admire your lofty aspirations and I realize you have responsibilities, the reality is that 1) not everyone is going to learn at that pace and 2) not everybody is going to learn what you think they should learn or how you think they should learn--especially the so-called mind wanderers. (Btw, there is a lot of good advice and information from the folks above^^)

It seems as though you might have some good solutions in mind already--some sort of self-paced option might help. But in the end, if you really want to reach all of your students (and I believe that you do), you have to know all of your students. However, as you said, your present situation does not allow for that luxury.
posted by jaronson at 5:04 AM on January 24, 2004

i didn't mean to criticise your teaching or your asking here- i think it's excellent that you want to try and help people as much as possible. if there was something in my suggestion apart from "just get on with it" (i don't want to get into how much we are responsible for how we are) it was that i thought people may simply not have thought about the broader picture - that they might not have considered that time was limited, that what they want to explore might be interesting but is not possible given the constraints, etc.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:39 AM on January 24, 2004

sorry, one other comment - maybe you can suggest to whoever is paying for the course that some people you are teaching might benefit from a course that explores different ways to learn.

for example, some people here seem to be saying that they have the same problem and instead self-teach - if that's the case then the people you are teaching need to reach that same level of self awareness so that they can come to you and say "look, i'd be happier sitting at the back of the room with a book" (or whatever works for them). and, of course, you need to provide an atmosphere where that kind of action is acceptable (but i would have thought from what you're saying that you already do that).

teaching people who don't know how to learn must be hugely frustrating.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:49 AM on January 24, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks for the clarifications, andrew (though I was never upset with you or anyone else in this thread). I agree with your point about letting students read a book if the want to read a book.

At the begiining of all my classes, I make it clear that this is not "School." That I want to help the students, and that I will never be offended if they would find it more helpful to sit and just read the manual, surf the web, or whatever. I also suggest to students that if I'm continuing to talk about something they totally understand, they should be free to jump ahead, check their email online, take a break or just explore the application. I clearly announce when I'm ready to start the next topic so that they'll know when to listen again.

jaronson, I agree that corporate training is far from ideal. In fact, it's a terrible way to teach people anything. But the fact remains that the majority of post-college adult training is run this way. I've thought about getting out of this field and going to teach at a university where I could (as you suggest) really get to know my students. But there's a need for good teachers in the corporate world. And though I am aware of the impossibility of doing great teaching in this environment, I have to pretend that it's possible, or I'll never solve any problems that actually ARE solveable.
posted by grumblebee at 6:22 AM on January 24, 2004

Response by poster: One more thing, andrew. I must quibble with your statement that "teaching people who don't know how to learn must be hugely frustrating." (You're going to think I'm getting on your case. Sorry. I don't mean to be so critical of everything you write. This is just a subject I feel strongly about.)

These people DO know how to learn. My guess is that all people -- except perhaps those with serious learning disabilities -- know how to learn. Some people don't want to learn or don't like learning. But those aren't the sort of people I'm talking about in this thread. The "wandering-mind" people are curious, imaginative and generally smart. In fact, they LOVE learning.

What they're not good at is SCHOOL. That is to say, they're not good at following regimented rules that try to limit intellectual activity to a very specific, very narrow topic at a very specific point-in-time.

In my experience, SCHOOL is 90% about following arbitrary rules and only 10% about learning. Some people are really good at following rules (opening the book to the page the teacher says they should open the book to, etc.), and those types tend to do well at SCHOOL -- though they often don't learn much.

Of course, I'm not talking about all schools. And I'm not talking about all people. Some people know how to learn well and follow rules at the same time.

But my experience as a child was this (and I bet others here have similar stories): from almost before I can remember, I was never without a book. I LOVED learning more than anything else. I read constantly. I took things apart to see how they worked. I wrote stories and essays. Etc. But I almost flunked out of every grade in school. I think I had a D average until college.

I had a really really hard time studying what I was supposed to be studying, because there were so many other facsinating tracks going on in my mind. I balked at being confined in some narrow intellectual alley.

Unfortunately, I never had a single teacher who understood me. I was continually told that I was lazy, stupid and bad. If ONE adult had said something to me like, "I think it's great that you love to read! Do me a favor and read the book for this class right now, and when you're done I'll give you some time to go back to one of your own books."

That would have made a HUGE difference. The effect that all of this has had on me is that I forgot everything I ever managed to learn in school -- because I associated school with intellectual torture -- but retained most of what I learned by self-study. I finally learned (in college) to excel in school by cynically deciding that school was 100% about getting a diploma so that I could get a job. So I learned how to churn out the minimum amount that would get me an A -- leaving me with the maximum amount of free time to follow my own muse.

School also taught me that I was bad at things that I really wasn't bad at, like Math. I'm now slowly putting myself though an advanced math course -- totally self-taught. But after high school, I wasn convinced that (a) I couldn't do Math and (b) that Math was stupid. Now I know that I can do it and that it's beautiful.
posted by grumblebee at 6:39 AM on January 24, 2004

Preach it, brother!
posted by jaronson at 7:26 AM on January 24, 2004

if they know how to learn then surely you should ask them.

i didn't say that they didn't want to learn, couldn't learn, or wouldn't learn. i said that they didn't know how to learn. sheesh.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:08 AM on January 24, 2004

and maybe you should try enabling your students by helping them find out how they learn, so that they can look after themselves. the idea isn't that you transform youself into some super-human teaching machine so that these poor victims of the system depend on you to nuture them (whatever you own needs in that direction). the idea is to give them the skills they need to make their own way in the world.

not them i want you to feel i'm critical of what you write, or that i'm shoving my own ideology down your throat.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:14 AM on January 24, 2004

tomcatspike's comment prompts me to wonder if any teachers born since 1960 still arrange their classrooms into rows, rather than circles or horse-shoes. I thought that the seating revolution had already happened. Am I wrong? Teachers?
posted by squirrel at 8:13 PM on January 25, 2004

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