One thing I tell my students is to take a break when stuck.  Breaks take the edge off for me and give my mind an opportunity to work on the problem in a nonchalant way.  I also take breaks when I am excited about my project.  

Quite often however the breaks are involuntary.  Most annoying are the unexpected breaks, when a phone call or an urgent task distracts you from what you are doing.  At work, it happens all the time.  Haven’t you wondered how waiters remember their orders?

(The picture on the right is a weird one, huh?)  Meet the Zeigarnik effect.

Bluma Zeigarnik was a Soviet psychologist who, like me, wondered about waiters.  The links at the bottom of this post will tell you more about her.  Bluma’s wonder resulted in an interesting theory: that people in all sorts of situations are likely to remember unfinished tasks or unresolved issues, provided that the following conditions are met:

  • you have been interrupted in the middle or towards the end of your work (i.e., you already have a working strategy for completing the task)
  • you don’t anticipate the interruption (except in a general sense, as in “interruptions are normal”)
  • you genuinely aspire to complete the task (there are different types of motivation, all of them genuine)

The Zeigarnik effect has important implications for instructors.  I have used some modified “interruptions” during my beginners classes.  My famously effective ever-shifting paradigm drill is an example.  I will give you the task of conjugating verbs in different tenses, moods and voices, and just as you are getting comfortable with each, I will ask you to produce side-by-side conjugations of a verb in more than one tense, mood, or voice.  And I won’t let you write those successively.  Then I will shift the sequence or add to it.  The effect of the drill on students’ retention of paradigms is impressive, and they transition much faster to the complexity of texts.

You can do this drill on your own, of course, but then the element of “unanticipated interruption” is greatly diminished.  Plus, students have told me that they tend to cheat without supervision…

Let me know what you think.  Contact me if you want to experience the Zeigarnik effect (


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