Distraction factor

Investing in proportion to effects

Hello July!

It’s a big day for the UK (although what Thursday isn’t). We’re rounding off our latest series with a brief discussion on the relative effects of different distractions, aka distraction factor…

Big idea 🍉

Distractions eat attention for breakfast and their appetite is BIG (over 33% of lesson time). But, not all distractions are equally hungry, and so our efforts to tackle them should be in proportion to their effect.

Consider classroom displays, such as posters or student work positioned in student lines-of-sight. Are these a distraction?

In short, yes... there is evidence that displays do have a negative impact on student attention (and so learning). While our brains are fairly good at filtering out what they deem to be irrelevant (sometimes at the expense of our teaching), this 'filtering out' process itself incurs a cost.

However, the size of this effect is relatively small (although it can be greater for students with SEND) and it tends to diminish over time.

Which means that, if there are other, bigger distractions at play (such as poor peer behaviour, which recent analyses suggest may be consuming 1/4 of lesson time), we should prioritise these. Otherwise, we're like an overweight guy buying carbon brakes for our bicycle in pursuit of better performance...

However, if we've got these bigger distractions under control, then we enter the territory of more marginal gains, and thinking about our displays becomes a reasonable move. Especially if the effort required to make the change is small, and we're also considering lots of other small wins. For the highly trained cyclist, shedding a few grammes via lighter brakes and pedals and shoes can make a meaningful difference.

Finally, we can reduce the chances of unintended negative consequences by thinking about the 'purpose' of existing displays:

  • If it's about showcasing student work to foster motivation, then moving posters to the back of the classroom can be a win-win.

  • If it's about helping students to remember key ideas, then it's probably better to run periodic retrieval practice on that stuff instead.

  • If it's about creating a pleasing environment, then carefully selected colours and some plants will probably work better.

  • And if it's for reference, then just bringing stuff out when needed is likely to be more effective.

🎓 For more, check out this study on attention and the visual environment.


  • Student attention is limited and so we should be thinking careful about how to optimise it.

  • Displays can be a distraction, but the size of this effect is generally small.

  • And so, we should probably focus on tackling bigger distractions first, such as poor behaviour.

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Peps 👊