Teachers take note: Students who seem to be ignoring you could actually be processing complex information in an attempt to come up with an answer.
Turns out facial expressions can be distracting.
The research was published last week in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.
Scientists have known that adults tend to turn their gaze away from a questioner's face when asked a thought-provoking question. While adults practice this look-away about 85 percent of the time, children five years old and younger do it just 40 percent of the time.
To find out how so-called "gaze aversion" impacts concentration, psychologists recruited 20 five-year-old children from a primary school in Stirlingshire. They trained 10 of the students to look away when pondering a question. "We had them look at a blank piece of paper on the floor," said co-author Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, a psychologist at Stirling University in Scotland. The other 10 students received no training. Then, the scientists asked each child a series of math and verbal questions, ranging from easy to moderate level.
They found that the students instructed to look away answered 72 percent of the questions accurately, while the untrained group succeeded in answering only 55 percent correctly.
"The difference between groups was especially evident on the difficult questions where the [averted gaze] group got on average 60.9 percent correct while the [untrained] kids got only 36.7 percent," Doherty-Sneddon said.
The team suggests the findings could be a result of distraction during eye contact. Human faces are mentally captivating, making it difficult to ignore, Doherty-Sneddon said. For instance, she explained that if a teacher were to turn toward a window when asking you a question, your attention would immediately be drawn in that direction.
What's a teacher to do? "It does have real implications for teachers," Doherty-Sneddon said. "It's really important to give children enough thinking time to come up with answers. We tend to jump in too quickly, and that interrupts concentration."
An averted gaze could signal "I'm thinking." So instead of a reprimand-invoking act, avoiding eye contact could be a helpful scholastic tool.
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Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.