Episode 22 - Attention and the Classroom with Michael Hobbiss

This episode was funded by The Wellcome Trust, and supporters like you. For more details, please see our Patreon page. In today's episode, we feature one of our patrons, Bob Reuter.

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Show Notes:

This is the second episode in a series recorded in London! In June 2018 we attended the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction conference (or, more simply, EARLI) for the special interest group on Neuroscience and Education (@EarliSIG22). While there, we recorded live interviews with teachers and researchers. This episode features Michael Hobbiss. (Check out Episode 21 for our first interview with Dr. Emma Blakey!)

Please excuse any issues with sound quality. We were quite literally recording on the fly!


Michael Hobbiss started his career as a teacher for 8 years, teaching psychology and biology in the UK and abroad. He is now back in the UK, pursuing his PhD with Dr. Nilli Lavie at University College London. His focus is on attention, distraction, and cognitive control in adolescents. Mike tweets at @mikehobbiss and blogs at The Hobbolog.

In the beginning of the episode, Mike describes the two main ways attention is captured:

Bottom-up: the object or stimulus itself
Top-down: your prior knowledge, interest, motivation

Both of these processes are prone to distraction. But surprisingly, Mike says, we don't know all that much about how students get distracted during learning. We do know that attention is related to important educational outcomes: for example, teacher ratings of children's attention at age 5 correlate with the children's later academic success (although, teacher ratings are not always reliable and tend to vary between cultures). We also know that inattention can be related to being unhappy. For his PhD, Michael has set out to investigate attention processes in adolescents.

The irrelevant distractor task

Mike uses the "irrelevant distractor" task in his research. In this task, participants have to pick a particular object out of a visual display. For example, they might have to pick out the letter O from an array of Xs. This would be an easy task - one with low "perceptual load", because the other letters (Xs) do not look similar to the target letter (O). In a high perceptual load version of this task, participants would need to pick out the letter X from, say, letters like K or M, which are more similar. At the same time, during this task, random irrelevant distractors such as Sponge Bob will pop up on the screen.

Image from a presentation by Dr. Sophie Forster

Image from a presentation by Dr. Sophie Forster

Typically, when the task has higher perceptual load, people are less likely to notice and be distracted (in other words, slowed down) by the irrelevant distractor (1). However, Mike didn't find this pattern in his research with adolescents - in the episode he describes a very different pattern of results that involved adolescents' accuracy as well as speed. Interestingly, Mike found a relationship between students' self-reported level of distraction during class and their performance on this task.

While these results are exciting, Mike warns against acting on these findings immediately in the classroom - we need to understand a lot more about how distraction varies within and between children before we build interventions to address it.

The big takeaway

We tend to think of attention as a resource that we either have or don't have; this may not be a useful way to think about it. Many factors in the environment influence attention, so there is enormous potential to improve attention - for example, putting your phone away when you're trying to work, choosing what type of music you are listening to, and using pictures effectively.


(1) Forster, S., & Lavie, N. (2009). Harnessing the wandering mind: The role of perceptual load. Cognition, 111, 345-355.

Previous Episodes from this series:

Episode 23 - Executive Function and Computational Thinking with Rina Lai

Episode 21 - Executive Function Development with Emma Blakey