Why Learning Can’t Happen on Autopilot

Do you ever find yourself drifting along through your classes, going through the motions, and feeling as if you have not learned anything? The problem of being disengaged from active thinking is not limited to college students. In a recent study by Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, and Matthew Killingsworth, they found that being ‘mentally checked out’ is common occurrence among adults. Their research concluded that 46.9 percent of the time most adults are involved in ‘mind wandering’ or being more focused on their own thoughts than the world around them or a specific task that must be accomplished. When lost in thought, adults function on autopilot, which explains why we can accomplish routine tasks without having to consciously focus on what we are doing and these tasks become habits over time.

Running on Autopilot

Gilbert and Killingsworth also believe that mind wandering is a predictor of happiness. If we are forced to stop and do something that we feel is irrelevant or unimportant, we are going to experience a sense of frustration – if we cannot focus on the task. Dr. David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, explains this from a perspective of cognitive control. If you have a strong awareness of the thought processes you are involved in, you have a better ability to control what you say and do. You are can change the focus of your attention and as a result, you have developed a cognitive capacity to change how your brain functions. As a student, you are going to have many competing demands for your attention, depending upon what other responsibilities you have and where you choose to study. If you can control your focus and your thoughts, you are better able to be consciously involved in the process.

From a neurological perspective, the brain is programmed to learn from our day of birth. In this unique process of acquiring and processing information, the brain has an inherent quality where it will focus only on something new or novel, and any redundant information is quickly discarded. Think about the amount of information that you are bombarded with every day through all of your senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, seeing). A lot of that information will never make it to your conscious awareness because of a built-in filtering process called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS “acts as a filter or a grid only allowing vital information through to our brain and therefore stopping our brain becoming overloaded with stimuli.”

As a student, if your mind is wandering and you cannot focus; your lack of attention to the class, your studies, or a specific task may result in an inability to process information correctly. This can have a negative impact on how or what you learn, and ultimately your performance in class.

What is Classroom Engagement?
In my post, Why Online Students Need to Be Actively Engaged in Class, I defined engagement in class as an action-based state that consists of the time, energy, and effort students devote to their classes. In other words, it’s what you are doing in class. You take action to be engaged in the class when you believe your emotional needs are being met, you’re interested in the class, and you are motivated to do so because completing the class will help meet your goals. The process of being engaged in the class involves more than putting in enough effort to “just get by” or doing the minimum required to pass the course. When you are engaged in the class you are dedicating the time necessary to become an active participant in the learning process and your attention is fully focused on the course.

How to Get Engaged in the Learning Process
1. Develop Mindfulness. How do you learn to switch out of an autopilot mode and concentrate fully on the class and required learning activities? Through focused attention, which is also referred to as mindfulness. In my post, Mindfulness Isn’t Just for Buddhists, I talked about the challenge that students face when they are trying to concentrate during class and their study time because of the many demands and responsibilities that they are often thinking about. Developing mindfulness or focused attention is a method of tuning out distractions and being purposefully engaged so that the task at hand can be accomplished. While mindfulness may not seem like a student success strategy, there are many studies now that show how it improves a person’s ability to not only concentrate but also combat stress.

Elizabeth Stanley, a professor at Georgetown University, offered an explanation from a neurological viewpoint how mindfulness relates to improved brain functioning. Stanley said that “studies involving subjects engaged in repeated mindfulness have shown that it changes the way blood and oxygen flow through the brain, leading over time to structural changes. The practice can shrink the amygdala, which controls our fear response; enlarge the hippocampus, which controls memory; and make the insular cortex that regulates the body's internal environment more efficient.” How you choose to think, or the thought processes you use, can result in a response within the brain that helps improve memory and your reaction to stressful situations.

2. Engage the Thinking Brain. How do you then engage and retrain the brain to be mindful, if it has an internal processing mechanism that may filter out even important information? In the article, How to Engage the Brain in Learning, it explained that the ‘thinking’ brain will allow certain types of information to get through and includes “anything new or novel.” All of the learning activities you will be involved in as a student are likely to have a “new” element to it as you will be reading course materials, participating in class discussions, and conducting additional research. Of course skimming through the materials and never fully comprehending what you’ve read will negate these benefits.

3. Interact with Information. Further research related to how the brain learns has determined that when students are “learning new things, memory and recall are strengthened by frequency and recency. The more we practice and rehearse something new and the more recently we have practiced, the easier it is for our brain to transmit these experiences efficiently and store them for ready access later.”  The way to make the process effective so you are engaged in learning is to interact with the information in a meaningful way. Instead of just reading the information, use note-taking methods such as a mind map to process it.   The purpose is to engage your brain and help you develop your focus on the topic, subject, or activity. In other words, make the learning process fun.

Your Involvement is Necessary

The learning process depends upon more than your instructors to create the ‘right’ classroom conditions. It is a very individualized process that also is dependent upon your ability to be fully engaged. You can awaken your concentration by being mindful of the task at hand and controlling your thoughts. As you develop focused attention you are likely to experience a greater sense of awareness of how you are learning and what you are learning, which will also increase your involvement in class, strengthen your cognitive functioning, and lead to improved overall performance.  

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

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