Selective attention control facilitates learning from task-relevant competing information during childhood and adulthood
Learning environments are complex, dynamic settings that contain multiple sources of information that compete for our attention resources. Researchers and practitioners argue that selective attention control is critical for effective learning, as selective attention allows individuals to stay focused on primary task goals and ignore task-irrelevant competing information. However, research with older adults has shown that increased attention to competing information can also benefit learning when this competing information is relevant to ongoing learning tasks. We examined the extent to which individual differences in selective attention skills influenced individuals’ learning from task-relevant competing information. Across three experiments we examined these effects at multiple developmental time points in the context of an experimental learning task and in computer-based learning environments. In Experiment 1, 4- to 8-year-old children completed a selective attention task that included competing information that was relevant for an ongoing learning and memory task. Children with better selective attention skills showed enhanced learning from the task-relevant competing information when they could efficiently complete the attention task and visually sample the relevant information. Experiment 2 examined 3- to 5-year-old children’s learning from science video lessons that varied in the amount of lesson-relevant vs. -irrelevant competing information available. Children with better selective attention skills preferentially attended to lesson-relevant competing information when both relevant and irrelevant information was present during the lessons, which promoted enhanced learning of lesson content. Finally, Experiment 3 examined the impact of multiple competing visual features (i.e., instructor videos, visual cues) on young adults’ learning from pre-recorded video lessons. Adults’ learning depended on both their selective attention skills and their perception about the relevance of these visuals for their learning. Individuals with better selective attention showed enhanced learning from lessons that included multiple competing visual features considered task-relevant by the learner. Attention control is typically equated with the ability to focus on primary target information while ignoring competing information. However, the current results suggest that selective attention control also involves the ability to efficiently shift across multiple relevant inputs in the environment, allowing for effective learning from both target material and task-relevant competing information.