Keeping your mind on the cycle ball: Region of proximal learning and mind wandering

A few days ago I saw this video of Cycle Ball and thought what thousands of others thought, “how is this possible?!”

The answer is, as the old joke goes, “Practice!” But practice what? I have been biking regularly for far longer than many of the players in the video and I am no closer to being able to kick a ball with the front wheel than when I first started bicycling.

Clearly, achieving mastery of any complex skill requires proceeding through many intermediate steps, from the simple to the complex. Practicing just the simpler skills, like my daily bicycle commute, will not get me closer to being a master Cycle Ball player, but attempting to practice the Cycle Ball “kicks” at my current level of would more likely land me in the hospital than land the ball in goal.

Many learning theories posit that there is some intermediate area of difficulty in which practice leads to the greatest amount learning. Perhaps the best known is Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development—the idea that there is a set of skills a child can do on their own (e.g., eating with a spoon, putting on their jacket), a set of skills completely outside of their current capacities (e.g., solving differential equations), and some that they can do with adult guidance or assistance (e.g., tying their shoes, bake cookies).

A similar progression in which guidance is offered by external artifacts rather than people is when gymnasts practice somersaulting into a harmless foam pit before graduating to a less forgiving surface.

Related to the zone of proximal development, but applied to more self-guided learning is the “region of proximal learning”, a theoretical framework developed by Janet Metcalfe and her collaborators. The central idea is that when tasked with learning something—a common domain used by Metcalfe and colleagues is learning a set of Spanish vocabulary words—time is best spent on studying items of intermediate difficulty. Too easy, and a learner is bored. Too difficult and they may be overwhelmed.

In past work, Metcalfe has shown that people are adept at allocating study time to items of intermediate difficulty. In a new study, which recently appeared in the Psychonomic Society’s journal Memory & Cognition, Xu and Metcalfe investigated whether people are more likely to mind-wander when learning material outside of their region of proximal learning. Presumably, if one is bored or overwhelmed it’s harder to stay on task and the mind is more likely to wander towards one’s favorite hobby than if the task is engaging and challenging but progress appears possible.

The study task involved learning Spanish translations of English words. Some words were easy: garantia (guarantee), gasolina (gasoline), capitan (take a guess). Others were more difficult: temprano (early), volver (turn), sangre (blood). Others were more difficult still: zanguango (slacker), tartamudez (stutter).

While learning the words, participants were periodically asked to report if their mind was wandering or if they were on task. Participants reported that they were mind wandering about a third of the time. An analysis of the words participants were attempting to learn prior to prompts that elicited mind-wandering reports showed that those words tended to be learned more poorly than words for which the prompt elicited a report of being on task—a validation of the self-reported mind-wandering measure. In sum, participants who mind wandered more, learned less and performed worse.

When did people mind-wander? In accordance with the authors’ predictions, mind wandering was minimal when people were studying the words of intermediate difficulty—those hypothesized to be within the region of proximal learning. By contrast, words outside that region were associated with more reports of mind wandering.

Of course some people perform better on the task than others. Those who performed better, tended to mind-wander more for the easier items and less for the more difficult items. Those who performed worse, showed the opposite pattern: mind-wandering more while attempting to learn the more difficult items (which were evidently too difficult for them), and less when studying the easy items (which lay closer to their region of proximal learning).

The authors conclude “that there is a delicate balance between difficulty and mind wandering, a balance that is reliant both on the difficulty of the task itself and on the individual’s current levels of mastery and knowledge.”

Apart from showing the benefit of studying things that are just a bit difficult, these results also highlight the high level of metacognitive ability people possess. Catching oneself mind-wandering is a good sign that one could be learning more by changing the difficulty of the task.

Article focused on in this post:

Xu, J. & Metcalfe, J. (2016). Studying in the region of proximal learning reduces mind wandering. Memory & Cognition, doi: 10.3758/s13421-016-0589-8.

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