Effects of a Mind Wandering Intervention for Reading and Math

Abigail Farrell, University of Houston, Houston, United States
Juliana Wall, University of Houston, Houston, United States
Anna Miller, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, United States
Paul Cirino, University of Houston, Houston, United States


Mind wandering can be defined as a shift of focus away from a primary task toward unrelated internal information (Smallwood & Schooler, 2006). It is a commonly experienced phenomenon (McVay & Kane, 2012) and is negatively associated with performance on a wide variety of tasks, including academic achievement outcomes (Randall et al., 2014). Therefore, mind wandering is a suitable target for intervention strategies. The goal of this project was to examine the impact of a brief intervention on the frequency of mind wandering in the context of reading and math learning performance. It was hypothesized that individuals in the intervention condition would (a) mind wander less frequently and (b) perform better on measures of reading comprehension and math learning compared to those in a control condition.

Participants and Methods:

Participants were 53 students enrolled in 7th grade at an urban middle school in Texas. The sample was half (47%) male. The school had a high proportion of economic disadvantage. Students were randomized to receive the mind wandering intervention (or not) in each of math and reading content domains, with order counterbalanced. Students first were pre-tested in the given topic, and then given a brief didactic and strategies regarding mind wandering (or not). Students then read four in-depth passages on sleep and dreaming (for reading) or watched five videos on properties of circles (for math). Probe-caught mind wandering was assessed at 12 predetermined intervals (though random appearing to students); if students in the intervention condition reported mind wandering, they were directed back to rewatch or re-read the content just prior to the instance of mind wandering. Students were post-tested on each topic at the conclusion. Analyses included ANOVA and ANCOVA to assess the effect on group on both mind wandering frequency and on post-test performance, controlling for pre-test performance.


Mean scores on the reading and math pre-tests did not differ between groups (p = .556 and .382), as expected. Mind wandering occurred about 16% of occasions, across groups. Mind wandering was significantly related to reading post-test performance (p = .026), but not math (p = .296). Across groups, students’ performances at post-test were modest but well above chance (reading, 13.77 (4.4), and math, 11.81 (4.5), each out of 24). For reading, students in the intervention condition reported mind wandering less frequently, 1.15 (2.4) instances compared to those in control, 2.93 (3.1) instances, p = .024. There were no differences on reading post-test performance (p = .545). For math, there were no differences between groups in either reported mind wandering frequency (p = .915) or math post-test performance (p = .135).


The results suggest that a simple intervention is associated with less frequent mind wandering during a reading task, supporting our first hypothesis. Other hypotheses, regarding the impact of the intervention on mind wandering during a math learning task and on posttest performances (across tasks), were not supported. Future work evaluating how mind wandering affects math performance in children and which types of interventions may be effective for different domains of academic tasks is needed.

Category: Learning Disabilities/Academic Skills

Keyword 1: pediatric neuropsychology
Keyword 2: academic skills
Keyword 3: learning