“Eyes on me!” I demanded decades ago as a young, inexperienced teacher. I assumed that if students’ eyes were on me, they were with me—they were learning.  That was then. And this is now.

Data scientists have recently come to a conclusion that contradicts such human intuition. In referring to research by Sidney D’Mello, columnist and contributing editor Jill Barshay states in a recent article, “You often hear teachers say that they don’t need data to tell them what their students know. Well, this [D’Mello’s] research points out that it’s hard for teachers to know when students are really absorbing something just by looking at their faces.”

D’Mello, a computer scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder hypothesized that “kids who were zoning out more should be learning less because they’re not focusing on their work.” In alignment with Barshay’s definition of zoning out as “an internal state in the brain where one may not always be aware of exactly where one’s thoughts are roaming,” D’Mello’s theory proved right. He discovered that the students whose eyes more often matched the “zoning out” patterns, demonstrated less learning (on computerized biology software) than the students who exhibited “not zoning out” patterns.

D’Mello found that you cannot necessarily determine if the mind is attentive just by watching someone. He discovered that many zoned-out students were often looking straight at the computer screen (or learning source) as if they were attuned to what was happening. Yet, those students were fixating longer when mind-wandering, responding less to what was happening. “It’s almost like a blank stare kind of thing, but it happens in milliseconds . . . you’re zoning out, you’re just fixating,” said D’Mello. “You’re not moving on.”

D’Mello found that when students are paying attention—when they are actively engaged in learning—their eyes show it. Learners’ eyes can be seen bouncing about more to absorb the learning material as they “fixate on a word or an image, encoding it on their brains and then move on.”

So how can we apply this research to our practices as consultants and instructional and leadership coaches? Barshay aptly noted that the best use of this research would be “for evaluating instructional software, pointing out when and where computerized learning is a bore,” I would take it one step more.

Not only does Barshay’s theory apply to computer learning, but to face-time learning as well. We should all be regularly evaluating all instruction, throughout the process, to determine where, when, and why learning is a bore—and then do something about it.

While D’Mello says that “monitoring and responding in that moment” is a definite to wrangle back learners, so too, should we. In the Core Instructional Model (CIM), this is where Monitoring and Adjusting comes in . . . quickly checking for evidence, not just gazes, to see if students or adult learners are “getting it,” so we can adjust the process if they are not.

With a minimum of 45 percent of time within a training/learning session focused on Student Active Participation (SAP), our preparation within CIM requires we adequately arrange a variety of interactive strategies to keep learners engaged. Chunking the learning helps, but we also need additional strategies in our tool box to rope them back when and if their minds wander. Thus, we must be strategically purposeful in designing for collaboration, discussions, and active manipulation of the content—both intellectually and physically—if we hope to keep learners hopping and as D’Mello said, their eyes bouncing to absorb the learning material and encode it on their brains before “moving on.”

As a consultant, PD trainer, and instructional/leadership coach, this is a great reminder for me. Not only should I check participants’ eyes to see if they are with me, but I must provide regular and intermittent opportunities for them to contribute. They must be engaged. They must be involved. They must be active. They must be hooked. Otherwise, they may tune out, despite their eyes being upon me.  So, anytime I am tempted to allow an “I” to dominate a learning session, or “eyes upon me” to be a gauge for whether or not participants are “with me,” I am reminded that it is not the eyes that hold the brain cells. I suppose the eyes don’t have it after all.

Work Cited

Bixler, Robert and D’Mello, Sidney. (2015). Research Study: Automatic gaze-based user-independent detection of mind wandering during computerized reading