Does mentioning SEX help students learn about other stuff too?

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of my most vivid memories from middle school was in English class. The class wasn't paying attention to the teacher -- we were chattering during "work time" and she wanted us to stop and return to a full-class lesson. So she shouted "SEX!" We all shut up immediately and stared at her in disbelief. Then she said, in a calm, normal voice: "Now that I've got your attention ..." and proceeded with her lesson. It worked great -- except for one thing. I have no recollection of what she actually taught us that day.

This brings up an interesting point: Teachers are often tempted to bring up interesting but irrelevant details (like SEX) in order to maintain student interest in a lesson. But does this actually help students learn the material better? Several studies indicate that it does not. Adding extraneous, unrelated anecdotes can actually distract students from the task at hand and lead to poorer recall, even if they are more "interested" in the material.

But a secondary question about extra details in course materials has yet to be answered: Is it the fact that extra details are present at all which leads to poorer learning? Or does the kind of extra details matter? Are students "seduced" by sexier examples, therefore missing the primary point of the lesson?

A team led by Richard Mayer created two different versions of a lesson on how viruses attack humans. In one version, each major point of the lesson was interrupted by an interesting anecdote such as this one:

A study conducted by researchers at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, reveals that people who make love once or twice a week are more immune to colds than folks who abstain from sex. Researchers believe that bedroom activity somehow stimulates an immune-boosting antibody called IgA.

In the other version, boring anecdotes were used instead:

A virus is about 10 times smaller than a bacterium, which is approsimately 10 times smaller than a typical human cell. A typical human cell is 10 times smaller than a human hair. Therefore, it can be concluded that a virus is about 1,000 times smaller than a human hair.

How were the anecdotes chosen? A set of 38 statements related to viruses was rated for interest level by 34 intro psych students (1="very boring"; 7="very interesting"). The six most interesting statements (mostly about sex or death) were included in the "interesting" version of the task, and the six most boring statements (random virus facts) were included in the "boring" version.

A new group of 89 students read the materials in one of three formats: a booklet, a PowerPoint show, or an animated presentation, with a time limit about five minutes. Then they were tested in two ways. First, a retention test measured their general knowledge of the lesson. They were given four minutes to answer the question "based on the lesson you just read, describe how a cold virus attacks the body." Next, they were given a transfer test, to see how well they could apply the information in the lesson, with five questions like "what would happen to viruses if the cells in our bodies developed thicker membranes?"

So how did they do? This graph shows the results:


The students did equally well on the test of general knowledge, whether or not the extra details were interesting. But when they were asked to apply that knowledge, arguably a more difficult task, the students who saw the boring extra details performed significantly better, whether the information was presented in booklet, PowerPoint, or animated form.

In a second experiment, with a completely different example (the digestive system), students were given as long as they liked to read a PowerPoint presentation, and the results were the same.

So while students can get the general gist of a topic when there are irrelevant examples, they do better at applying that information when those examples aren't very interesting.

Sexy examples, it seems, distract from the learning task. The researchers aren't suggesting that teachers start using boring examples, either -- what's best is to present only information that's relevant to what's being learned. Adding in irrelevant examples, especially the juicy ones, only makes learning more difficult.

There are some limitations to this study. In a lesson lasting just a few minutes, getting students to pay attention is probably easier than during a longer learning session. Those sexy, if irrelevant, examples might help students stay on-task for the longer term. And maybe the problem is one of balance. In the study, the irrelevant materials were about 30 percent of the total material presented. Maybe if attention-getting examples could be reduced to, say, 10 percent of the total, they'd serve their purpose without getting in the way of learning.

Richard E. Mayer, Emily Griffith, Ilana T. N. Jurkowitz, Daniel Rothman (2008). Increased interestingness of extraneous details in a multimedia science presentation leads to decreased learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 14 (4), 329-339 DOI: 10.1037/a0013835


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The only thing I got out of this article is that I'm not having enough sex.

Remember, sex isn't the only marker of interesting anecdotes.

By Anonymous Lion (not verified) on 23 Feb 2009 #permalink

I wanted to write a comment but then forgot what this article was about.

Interesting. Of course, there is also the question of student interest. A teacher who frequently incorporates interesting anecdotes would, I suspect, have a higher attendance rate than one who doesn't, and you can't learn if you don't go to class.

When I read "people who make love once or twice a week are more immune to colds than folks who abstain from sex", I dont think thats interesting, I feel insulted. I think thats a trivial fact and is possibly misleading.

Maybe people who are healthy do better by both these measures? Maybe people with frequent viruses make love less. The correlation alone does demonstrate causation from sex->cold immunity.

I would probably be on alert for more sloppy logic in what they teach.

By genemachine (not verified) on 24 Feb 2009 #permalink

does it matter that the lessons weren't equated exactly on content? i.e. comparing a lesson about colds and sex vs. a lesson that gives physical description of viruses? so there are other differences between the texts other than one is sexy and one is boring.

As a current undergrad, I share similar anectodes where a few of my professors mentioned sex as an attention grabber. I must say that it worked, especially in a night class to keep you awake. But it did not always work to focus on the course material. Also, overdoing runs the risk of resulting in boredom and disbelief towards the learning. Anectodes and attention grabbing cues should be contextual and balanced in a healthy way. After all, what if a student was a rape victim, for example, and is now struggeling with the trauma evoked by the educator's irrelevant utterance of sex. Unpleasant emotions may interfere with cognitive tasks such as attention which is vital for learning.

After the first anecdote, I'd have spent the rest of the class considering what wonders that sex 4 times a week might spawn. Or considering whether sex twice a week was really enough. Or maybe just wondering whether the really good-looking cool guy in the next role was actually getting as much as one might assume.

@ #5-The statement doesn't imply causation. Logically, it states only the correlation.

"people who make love once or twice a week are more immune to colds than folks who abstain from sex."

I heard about a study (can't cite, sorry) in which two groups were given the same lecture material, same style, etc. etc. but for one lecture a photograph of a pregnant woman was shown during certain parts of the lecture, as part of the visuals. Those students remembered the stuff they were exposed while the pregnant woman was being shown at a higher rate.

Obviously one can immediately think of all sorts of experimental issues here, but we can only assume the study was done taking all those issues into account ....

(If the study actually ever happened, that is)

Reading the article, I see that although all three teaching methods had better knowledge transfer with boring supplementary material, Powerpoint was by far the most effective!

Transfer scores
PP=7.3 +/- 2.6
Booklet=5.0 +/- 2.0
Narrated animation=5.4 +/- 2.4

For retention, there was little difference between the three.

Doesn't this contrdict the perceived wisdom of NOT using Powerpoint?

Did they give them the power point to take home?

I've found, anecdotally, that power point is great as long as you get a copy of or access to the slides later so you can remind yourself when it comes to studying. Teachers tend to blow through images/etc faster with slides, which, if you get a copy, is fine, but if you don't, you don't have the time to take thorough notes...

I have NO DOUBT that mentioning sex will at least grab attention, but just like with those really funny commercials that you later have no idea what brand they were marketing, the racy topic needs to be INTEGRATED into whatever it is they are teaching.

For example...the 16 Language Love Song:

I believe this phenomenon is why humor is so important for learning. It's a lot easier to work humor into a lesson

Thad: I believe the PowerPoint advantage was non-significant. I'll have more to say about PowerPoint in an upcoming post.

Lorien: Yes, sex is very distracting, but in a second study where most of the extra details were about sword-swallowing, similar results were found.

So, what about relevant anecdotal examples? Like indicating that if we were like viruses and could do "transformation" that we would be able to acquire another persons DNA from the simple act of bumping into them or holding hands?

Or the use of "real life examples" where one describes an individual that smoked for a number of years without cancer but after switching to chewing tobacco developed cancer within 6 months as a way of explaining how genetics plays a role in the likelihood of developing cancer?

Does this count as "boring" or "entertaining" information, and does it improve understanding and application or decrease it?

The degree to which some students to find scholarly material difficult to attend to/unimportant/boring just blows me away.

Dave: Yeah, that's what I mean...if the sword-swallowing were somehow integrated/related to the lesson, I think the knowledge WOULD stick. i.e., if while showing sword-swallowing they were discussing the length of the esophagus, I feel like I actually might remember that metric. In reality, who knows, but I know that I -do- learn about cooking science watching Alton Brown, and he employs humor to accomplish that.

It's possible that mentioning sex could increase recognition instead of recall (unless the knowledge test has measures of both). Since marketers spend millions of dollars designing sexual ads, I would expect it to have at least some effect -- perhaps an increased liking of the subject?

As a student who has some auditory and attention deficits, I am thankful everyday for PowerPoint and for teachers who take advantage of this and other technologies that make lectures accessible to all learning styles/abilities. I doubt I would have been able to graduate college back in the day when lectures were just that, long talks punctuated by an arbitrary word on the blackboard.

The one gripe I have about PowerPoint is that when the classroom is not designed technology-friendly (most retrofitted classrooms), the professor is often at a weird angle to the class, or worse, is shrouded in darkness so the screen can be adequately illuminated. I feel this really reduces the amount of discussion that the professor elicts from the class and vice-versa.