The Zeigarnik effect, or the educational value of unforeseen interruptions

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 (



8 thoughts on “The Zeigarnik effect, or the educational value of unforeseen interruptions

  1. Might this suggest that attention deficit, as well as a multi-tasking habit, is actually an unconscious urge towards greater efficiency?

    1. If you truly have an ADD, then perhaps you are not experiencing the Zeigarnik effect. I think one of the links above discusses the effect in pathological cases.

      What do you mean when you say “multitasking habit”? Do you find yourself multitasking when there is no need for multatasking?

      1. Re Multi-taking
        When confronted with more than one thing to do, doing a portion of each rather than one at a time to completion.

        Re ADD
        I forgot

  2. Very interesting, especially in it’s application of language learning, more importantly, second language learning. Since languages are learned by usage, not learned and then put into action, second languages, and the instruction of them, must be approached in such a manner.

    And I ask, what instruction doesn’t involve the teaching of a new language. Math, certainly does. Especially if you get into Algebra, Calculus, Trigonometry and Geometry, even Statistics. Everything involves learning a new lexicon, and therein, the ability to express one’s thoughts with all the elements of that. Semantics, syntax, phonetics and phonemics.

    I have found, as a student of English Education, Linguistics, and a Spanish minor, that languages are better absorbed if the learner experiences the second language in an environment that demands the student demonstrate the ability to absorb despite distraction. Perhaps breaks and diversions can serve to help this absorption take place. The brain is a complex thing, as is the language component of it–the trained muscle of the brain that picks up small units in phonemes that differentiate meaning. A study of minimal pairs–words separated by one small phoneme, often one that differentiates meaning in one language and not in the next (e.g. ship, sheep, and cheap for native Spanish speakers, in which the sh and ch consonant combinations do not differentiate meaning, and the different pronunciations of the vowels that don’t differentiate in Spanish either)can help to explain second language learner difficulty.

    You are no doubt a highly effective language instructor, Rali! If you incorporate these kinds of things in all your lessons, your students will benefit tremendously.

    I believe this is key in the threshold to fluency. Distractions, breaks, and diversions can simulate the “affective filter,” a second language learner experiences, that effectively blocks the student’s ability to utilize what he/she clearly knows. In the calmest of situations, when the student is relaxed, he/she has complete access to everything they know, and can readily produce it in meaningful speech. The student who learns in an environment that utilizes a more comprehensive unison of the brain, will have better access to the new knowledge of the components of language they have studied hard to internalize.

    This is effectively what “immersion,” does for the student. The learning environs they now experience will never again mirror the comfortable classroom in which the majority of learning took place; this is essentially how language is more profoundly internalized. It is used for real, significant, everyday functions.

    I look forward to the day I become rich, Rali, so I can take up Latin with you!

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