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I'm listening!

Testing attention and learning in students


Eli Solomon

Investigative Questions:
What correlation is there, if any, between attention level, task, and lecture retention / memory
formation in students? Can students really doodle or listen to music in class, and still absorb the
material? Is taking notes more effective than just listening to a lecture?
Research:
Attention is a very complicated function of the brain. There are different systems that
control different types of attention, and there are many different brain areas involved. The
prefrontal cortex (Figure 1) controls attention span, and determines which information to filter
out, and which information should be prioritized.

Figure 1: The prefrontal cortex of


the human brain
When detailed information about stimuli, such as the taste, smell, touch, sight, or sound is
required, the areas of the brain involved in that particular sense are used to analyze that stimulant
fully. For example, in a visual search for an apple in an apple tree, the brain areas that process
color and shape would be utilized. In addition, attention aids memory, most likely by committing
resources to that particular area.
Not a lot is known about how memory works in the brain, but it is known that the
hippocampus, (Figure 2) plays a major part in memory formation, and also is involved, along
with the frontal cortex, in deciding which pieces of information to commit to long-term memory.
Short term memory can hold only seven items, for a period of, at most, thirty seconds, so the
hippocampus is essential. This also means that without paying attention to something, it is

impossible to remember it for more than about thirty seconds.

Figure 2: The hippocampus, a structure related to


memory formation, among many other things.
The technology used to measure attention in this project is a type of EEG, or
electroencephalography. This technology takes advantage of how the brain works to measure
brain activity. In the brain, there are cells called neurons, (Figure 3) which connect to each other.

Figure 3: A typical neuron, or


brain cell
Neurons converse with each other electro-chemically. An impulse travels along the neuron,
which can be up to a meter long in some animals, via an electrical signal. When this electrical
signal reaches the end of the neuron, it releases chemicals which bond to the next neuron. This
chemical stimulates the next neuron, and provokes the beginning of an electrical reaction. This
happens millions of times per second in the brain. EEG technology uses electrodes on the scalp

to detect these electrical signals. EEG technology is completely harmless, because it doesnt
interfere with how the brain works, it just detects the signals. Most EEG machines used in labs
are thousands of dollars, and use many channels, but for this experiment, an alternative was
found. The NeuroSky MindWave is an inexpensive alternative, which is extremely portable, and
easy to use. It also features algorithms which automatically calculate attention level. In
independent studies, it has been determined that there is a positive correlation between selfreported attention level and the level reported by the algorithms. The values generated by these
algorithms will be used for this experiment.

Variables:
Independent:
Task performed while watching a lecture
Doodling while watching
Listening to music in one ear while watching
Taking notes while watching
Just watching
Dependent:
Attention level
Score on a test

Hypotheses:
The attention level will correlate with the score on the test, because with more attention comes
more retention. Doodling will be the lowest score and attention level, listening to music will be
the second lowest score and attention level, just listening to the lecture will be the second best
score and attention level, and taking notes will be the best score and attention level. This is
because these tasks require different amounts of cognitive processing, and they will take more
attention away from the lecture.

Materials:
Filmed lecture of about five minutes, about a little-known topic
A test of five multiple-choice questions testing knowledge of the topic
NeuroSky Mindwave device
Computer with Meditation Journal software installed, and some way to create and edit a
spreadsheet
A way to show the subject the lecture

1.

1.
2.
3.
4.

Procedures:
Create a spreadsheet with 5 columns, labeled Subject number, Task, Average % Attention,
Standard Deviation, and Test Score ( /5) In condition, put the letters L, N, D, and M, one per
row. (See Figure 4) They mean:
L: Only watch the lecture
N: Watch and take notes on lecture
D: Doodle on a piece of paper while watching the lecture
M: Listen to music in one ear while watching the lecture
Figure 4: The data table used

Subject Number

Task

Average %
Attention

Standard
Deviation

Test Score ( /5)

2. When a subjects number is assigned, they will perform the task given in the spreadsheet.
3. Have subject sit in the room, and put the Mindwave device on their head, according to the
instructions that came with the Mindwave device
4. Start a new session in Meditation Journal, with the subjects number as the name
5. Start recording brain activity, and ask the subject to begin their assigned task.
6. Start the lecture, still recording the brain activity
7. After the lecture is over, end the session, and administer the test
8. Collect and grade test, enter the test score into the spreadsheet, and enter the given values for
average attention and standard deviation.
9. Repeat with next subject

Data:

Subject #

Average %
attention

Task
1
5
9
13
16
6
2
10
14
17
3
7
11
15
18
4
8
12
19
20

Standard Deviation Test score ( /5)


18
22
13
21
18
19
21
19
18
13
19
16
18
19
17
14
18
17
18
17

4
4
5
4
5
5
5
3
5
5
2
1
4
2
5
4
4
4
4
5

Average Attention Average Standard Average Test Score Average Test


(%)
Deviation
(/5)
Percentage (%)
51
18.4
4.4
48.6
18
4.6
54.4
17.8
2.8
52.8
16.8
4.2

88
92
56
84

Listening
Listening
Listening
Listening
Listening
Notes
Notes
Notes
Notes
Notes
Doodling
Doodling
Doodling
Doodling
Doodling
Music
Music
Music
Music
Music

45
51
50
59
50
43
50
57
45
48
52
53
59
53
55
46
43
53
55
67

Averages:

Task
Listening
Notes
Doodling
Music

Discussion:
These data clearly show a difference in test performance based on task while watching
the lecture. This is shown by the fact that the average test score for those who were doodling was
the lowest, at 2.8 out of 5, or 56%. Listening to music while watching the lecture had the next

lowest average score, which was 4.2, or 84%. Just listening to the lecture was the second highest
score, with 4.4, or 88%. Taking notes on the lecture had the highest average score, with 4.6 out
of 5, or 92%.

While the data show a correlation between task and test score, there is no clear
correlation between task and attention level. The average attention level for those who were
doodling was 54.4%. For those listening to music it was 52.8%, for those only listening to the
lecture the average was 51%, and for those taking notes, the average was 48.6%. These findings
at first seem to correlate inversely with the average test score, but this is misleading. The average
standard deviation for each task was from 16.8 to 18.4. The standard deviation is much greater
than the change in attention level, which means that the inverse correlation to the test score is
just a coincidence.

Conclusion:
This experiment clearly shows that task performed during a lecture has an impact on test
score. Doodling during a lecture results in the least amount of retention, listening to music during
a lecture results in the second least amount of retention, listening to the lecture results in the
second highest amount of retention, and taking notes on the lecture results in the highest amount
of retention. However, the attention levels do not correlate with the test score, and are so close
that they have no significance. This may be because the participants attention was not focused
on the lecture, their att ention was focused somewhere else. Another explanation could be that
the instrument used may not be sensitive enough to pick up the small changes in attention, or
what areas of the brain the activity was focused in. Because it was a single-channel recorder, it
may have averaged, all brain activity, while attention focused in one particular area would be
picked up with a multiple channel recorder.
The hypothesis was partially proved, and partially disproved. It was proved that task
correlates to test score, with participants who doodled having the lowest average test score,
participants who listened to music having the next lowest test score, those who only watched the
lecture having the second highest test score, and those who took notes having the highest test
score. However, It was disproved that attention level correlates to task and test score.

Limitations and Improvements:


A more sensitive instrument could have been used. If this had been the case, then type and
direction of attention might have been measured.
In a future study, an EEG unit with at least three channels should be used. One electrode on the
frontal lobe, one near the auditory cortex, and one near the primary visual cortex.
If more trials were done, then the numbers would be more accurate

Bibliography:
http://www.braincenteramerica.com/selectatt.php
Brain Functions: Selective Attention
http://teddybrain.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/prefrontal-cortex.jpg
prefrontal-cortex.jpg
http://www.knowyourbody.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Primary-auditory-cortex-Picture.png
Primary-auditory-cortex-Picture.png
http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s2/chapter13.html
Auditory System: Pathways and Reflexes (Section 2, Chapter 13) Neuroscience Online:
An Electronic Textbook for the Neurosciences | Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy - The
University of Texas Medical School at Houston
http://scienceblogs.com/purepedantry/wp-content/blogs.dir/454/files/2012/04/ib684bae69f10b82d2afa22af6095afcf-hippocampus-2.gif
hippocampus-2.gif
http://psychology.about.com/od/memory/f/short-term-memory.htm
Short Term Memory - Definition
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Assessing NeuroSky's usability to detect attention levels in an assessment exercise (2009)
http://animatlab.com/portals/0/Images/AnimatLab/NB_Neuron.gif
NB_Neuron.gif
http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/human-memory1.htm
HowStuffWorks Memory Encoding
http://www.princeton.edu/ntblab/pdfs/Chun_CONB_2007.pdf
Interactions between attention and memory