This study just revealed the key secret to learning effectively (and fast)

Learning occurs in a variety of ways. From simply reading textbooks to real-world experiences. 

Many people like to make learning a bit more exciting by incorporating entertaining elements into their quest for knowledge, but a new study conducted at Washington State University has found that “seductive details” in lesson plans or learning initiatives usually do more harm than good. 

Think back to all of your past school teachers for a moment. Some probably stuck strictly to the lesson plans laid out in the textbook, never attempting to spice things up with a song or game. Others, in all likelihood, were a bit more fun; treating the class to a few jokes, anecdotes, or videos once in a while. While you probably enjoyed the fun teacher’s class a whole lot more, according to these findings you learned more in the dull class.

Researchers say that these seductive details, or bits of information that are fun and interesting yet ultimately irrelevant, can impede learning. In all, 58 prior studies were analyzed for this project, encompassing over 7,500 students. Overwhelmingly, students who were taught with extra, immaterial details performed worse on assessments in comparison to students who just stuck to the facts.

These findings can seem a bit deflating at first. Who doesn’t want to have a little fun while they learn? Once one gets past the initial disappointment that Saving Private Ryan probably didn’t teach them as much as they thought about World War II, though, it’s fairly easy to recognize that the study’s authors have a point. While you were busy following Tom Hanks’ quest to find Matt Damon, there’s a good chance you missed why exactly the Allies invaded Normandy on June 6th, 1944 in the first place.

“If you have an irrelevant piece of information, and it is something that is interesting, students tend to perform worse,” says Kripa Sundar, the lead author on the paper that is based on her dissertation from WSU’s College of Education, in a press release. “There are multiple hypotheses on why that happens, but the simplest is that students’ attention is now diverted toward that irrelevant information, and they’re spending too much time trying to understand what that seductive detail is instead of the content matter.”

Sundar and her team noted that learning was even further hampered when the seductive detail was placed right alongside factual data or pertinent information, or if it had a constant presence like an image on a screen. This phenomenon also seems to be more relevant regarding historic or scientific learning.

To be clear, the research team doesn’t want to cut the fun out of learning altogether. Engaging details and learning aids can still be beneficial, but they should be on-topic and relevant. Circling back to our prior example, Saving Private Ryan would work well as a learning aid for teaching about the horrors of war and the challenges U.S. troops faced during World War II, but it has little educational value in terms of why the war was fought or the strategic decisions that played into D-Day.

“This does not mean that learning shouldn’t be fun,” Sundar adds. “We just might need to exert a little more effort into thinking how we can make the learning activity itself a lot more engaging and interesting in a way that contributes toward the educational objective.”

Humans tend to connect smaller details to larger concepts, it’s just how our brains operate. So, when a relevant detail can be included in a lesson it can definitely help in terms of learning. But, when an unrelated yet entertaining or captivating detail is brought in, it can really derail the progress being made.

The study’s authors used another example to drive home this fact. Imagine a science teacher conducting a lesson on how lightning forms. At one point, in an effort to entertain the students, the teacher recounts a story of a freak lightning bolt killing 16 people inside a church in Rwanda in 2018. The teacher was trying to entertain the students while still teaching them, but now most of the students are just focused on that crazy story.

There are, of course, layers to all of this. For instance, if someone is learning about a topic they already have a great deal of knowledge on, a few alluring or entertaining details may not be as detrimental. Similarly, there are also emotional trade-offs to consider. It’s possible that the relief some may feel from a little bit of entertainment while learning will outweigh the distracting effects of a joke or irrelevant story.

This research focused on school students, but its conclusions are relevant for anyone of any age group. We live in an age of constant stimulation and distractions, but when it comes to learning there are no shortcuts.

The full study can be found here, published in Educational Psychology Review.