What does massed reading and watching do to attention?

What does massed reading and watching do to attention?

By Yana Weinstein

What happens when students read a text twice in a row or watch the same lecture video twice in a row? We know from research on retrieval practice (1) and spaced practice (2) that such “massed” repetition of information does little to enhance long-term learning. Massed re-reading or re-watching can be contrasted with either retrieval practice of information (i.e., trying to remember it), or spaced repetition (reading or re-watching after a delay) - two activities that are more likely to produce beneficial effects on learning.

A group of authors set out to examine what happens to students’ attention when they engage in massed restudying of information (3), (4). They were particularly interested in how restudying impacts “mind-wandering” – the shifting of attention from what one is supposed to be thinking about, to some other train of thought. A former undergraduate student of mine wrote an in-depth review of mind-wandering and education for a class and described mind-wandering as “the ultimate personal distraction in the classroom” (Melissa Harris). The impact of mind-wandering on learning is hard to determine because we cannot experimentally control mind-wandering – in other words, we cannot pre-determine that Group A will mind-wander a lot whereas Group B will mind-wander a little, keeping everything else constant. However, we do often find a negative correlation between mind-wandering during learning and later test performance (5). As such, we might be concerned when a particular behavior or study technique increases mind-wandering. Consequently, one explanation for the ineffectiveness of massed restudying is that repetition causes attention to wander away from the study material.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

In two papers, the authors investigated how re-reading a text (3) and re-studying a video lecture (4) affected mind-wandering. But, how does one measure mind-wandering? That is a question complicated enough for its own post – in fact, complicated enough for a long review paper I recently published (6)! In this particular set of experiments, students were interrupted multiple times during reading or watching, and asked to indicate whether they were thinking about the study material or something else (mind-wandering). Students were also asked to distinguish between whether their mind-wandering was “intentional” (they felt like they had initiated a thought about something other than the study material on purpose), or “unintentional” (they felt like they had spontaneously started thinking about something other than the study material).

In both the text and video experiments, students mind-wandered more when they re-studied than when they studied material for the first time. And, in neither case did immediate re-studying help later test performance, over and above studying once. The data also suggested that the additional mind-wandering that occurred during re-study came from intentionally initiating irrelevant thoughts rather than spontaneously thinking about irrelevant things, though this pattern of results was only significant in the reading experiment. Concerningly, in the reading experiment the additional re-studying led to students feeling more confident in their memory for the information (the confidence question was not asked in the video study).

Can attention explain all the benefits of techniques such as retrieval practice and spaced practice? Absolutely not. But I am very intrigued by the possible role of attention in the effectiveness of these techniques. For example, in one set of studies my colleagues and I demonstrated that expecting a test during learning helped reduce interference from previous learning (7). More on that finding in a future post!


(1) Roediger III, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences15, 20-27.

(2) Kang, S. H. (2016). Spaced repetition promotes efficient and effective learning: Policy implications for instruction. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences3, 12-19.

(3) Phillips, N. E., Mills, C., D'Mello, S., & Risko, E. F. (2016). On the influence of re-reading on mind wandering. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology69, 2338-2357.

(4) Martin, L., Mills, C., D’Mello, S. K., & Risko, E. F. (2018). Re-Watching Lectures as a Study Strategy and Its Effect on Mind Wandering. Experimental Psychology, Online First.

(5) Risko, E. F., Buchanan, D., Medimorec, S., & Kingstone, A. (2013). Everyday attention: Mind wandering and computer use during lectures. Computers & Education, 68, 275-283.

(6) Weinstein, Y. (2018). Mind-wandering, how do I measure thee with probes? Let me count the ways. Behavior Research Methods50, 642-661.

(7) Weinstein, Y., Gilmore, A. W., Szpunar, K. K., & McDermott, K. B. (2014). The role of test expectancy in the build-up of proactive interference in long-term memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition40, 1039-1048.