Brain-Based Learning

The Student Engagement Trap, and How to Avoid It

Capturing students’ interests can be harmful to learning when it’s not relevant to the subject, research shows.

September 17, 2020
Ian Miles-Flashpoint Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

As Mr. James starts today’s class about volcanoes, he shares one of his all-time favorite wonder moments: “The loudest known sound was made by a volcano called Krakatau, in Southeast Asia. When Krakatau erupted in 1883, it was reported to have sounded like 15,000 nuclear bombs! Like 200 megatons of energy! What do you imagine a volcano eruption sounds like?” The imaginations of all 28 of his fourth graders were set afire, with many sharing their ideas. To an observer, today’s class would be abuzz and engaged. Great! After all, students cannot learn new information without paying attention, and they pay attention when they are interested, right?

Right. But, as with almost everything related to teaching, it is not that simple. Researchers have found that if interesting information is irrelevant to the lesson’s learning objectives, it is likely to hurt students’ learning related to the specific objective. For example, if you dug deeper, you’d find that today’s geology lesson is not about the results of eruptions—it’s actually about what conditions cause volcanoes to erupt. In Mr. James’s classroom, students are more likely to remember the devastating sounds from the dramatic eruption rather than the underlying geology concepts.

Researchers call these attention-grabbing, interesting, and irrelevant pieces of information seductive details. They can be words, illustrations, photographs, animations, narrations, videos, or sounds. An analysis of nearly 70 learning outcomes found that on average, students who were exposed to seductive details performed worse than students who learned without them. Though the jury is still out on why seductive details tend to decrease learning, there are four likely reasons:

  • Learners are distracted by the bells and whistles and skip absorbing essential content.
  • Learners’ attention is drawn away by seductive details that remind them of irrelevant prior knowledge.
  • Learners get confused by irrelevant details, which hinders their ability to understand essential content.
  • Learners’ attention is spread too thin across an overwhelming number of details, which limits their ability to process important concepts.

As educators develop online material, this is the time to carefully consider every aspect of our content and design: What purpose do they serve? Could they diminish learning the central ideas? As a researcher of seductive details, I would strongly recommend excluding them from learning materials. As an educator, I know that a laugh can break the tension in class or build rapport with students, especially now when we can all use a smile. That is why I have pulled together three tips for creating high-quality learning materials based on my analysis of 50+ research studies.

Tip 1: Keep It Distinct

In my research, I found that seductive details that were intermittent—like a story shared in class or a GIF—didn’t hinder learning as much as images or text that contained irrelevant information. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? A GIF definitely catches my attention better than just an image, but it also signals to me that the information is intended for fun and not related to the content.

Learners may have difficulty telling the difference between relevant and irrelevant information, so it’s helpful to avoid mixing the two. From your perspective, an extra detail may appear too silly to be mistaken for being important, but a student’s prior knowledge can alter that perception (and students with the least prior knowledge are the least likely to be able to tell what is important). Plus, it still takes time and attention away from the important information. Instead, ask yourself: “How can I make this content fun? How does it connect to my students’ lives?”

Tip 2: Follow a ‘Less Is More’ Mantra

Our brains process information through both visual and auditory memory channels. By presenting information in both formats, we can maximize learners’ capacity to receive and process new information. When the content is relevant, great! When it’s not? Twice the whammy. Hence, cut out information that makes the material look pretty while not adding value to the content (e.g., stock photos). Instead, focus on design elements to make your presentations useful and aesthetically pleasing: Have clear titles, use borders and blocks to highlight key ideas, and organize your slides to help students connect them to other subjects or topics within your course. Go pretty, purposefully.

Tip 3: End With Clarity

Although seductive details are harmful when placed at the beginning or interspersed, they are especially harmful at the end. At the beginning of a lesson (or video or text), seductive details may divert learners’ attention, but the effects would be temporary. However, if placed at the end of a lesson, seductive details may disrupt their understanding of the topic.

When I prepare my presentations, I avoid including seductive details at the end. Instead, I revisit the key ideas or follow up using quick and powerful strategies like retrieval practice or elaboration.

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