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What Is The “Zeigarnik Effect” & How Did I Apply It In The Classroom Today?

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Bluma Zeigarnik was a Russian psychologist who identified what came to be called the “Zeigarnik Effect.” You can read more about it here, but, basically, it means that once we start doing something, we’re going to tend to want to finish it.

I’m sure many teachers have never heard of the Zeigarnik Effect, but often apply it. We might have students who just tend to procrastinate when doing an assignment, or are afraid of getting something wrong and are reluctant to start, or have a hard time getting going for other reasons . So we encourage students to get started by just answering the first question, or writing the first paragraph, or give reading the first page a try.

I’ve certainly done that often in the past, but recently learning that the strategy actually has a name and scientific evidence to back it up now makes me more conscious of it as another component of my “toolbox.”

One of my students does have a strong tendency toward procrastination. Today, we were completing a short “book talk” form (see My Best Posts On Books: Why They’re Important & How To Help Students Select, Read, Write & Discuss Them for more information on the idea), and everybody was working away on it except for “John” (not his real name). He said he didn’t know what to write. The article I read about the Zeigarnik Effect immediately came to mind, and I asked him to complete the first question, which just asked for the title of the book and the author’s name. I pointed out that all he had to do was copy it from the cover of his book.

He immediately did so, and then went on to complete the entire form. Would I have made that same suggestion if I hadn’t read about Zeigarnik yesterday? Maybe, maybe not. But it has now made me more conscious of thinking about what might be easy tasks or questions that would be good ways to start challenging assignments (or to use to get students who face a variety of challenges starting on doing any assignments)….

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

8 Comments

  1. This makes perfect sense. Perhaps this is why I must finish every book that I have read past the first couple of chapters. If the book is awful I will put it down after about 30 pages. If it’s at least hald decent I will push to the end!

  2. This is an interesting idea. I know I have never heard of the “Zeigarnik Effect.” I too have been frustrated by students who are procrastinators and just can’t get things started sometimes. I will try to use this with students that have trouble getting started.

  3. I had never heard of the “Zeigarnik Effect.” However, it really makes a lot of sense to give students something that you know they will be able to accomplish or answer as you begin an assignment or test. This builds confidence to continue to the next, and the next, and the next.

  4. Hmmm: I just finished Plutarch’s Lives. It took me 4 years because I would quit when I got ” battled out” or all the ancient heroes, who were trully wicked dudes,blended into an indistinct blur. But I was determined to finish the whole thing once I started it. TADA! I did it, and am now working my way thru the
    Great Books series.
    My students also seem to want to succeed at their powerpoint projects the same way. They grip them and worry them like old slippers until they have them done, with much peer collaboration. Great pride and a sense of accomplishment seem to result. yeah for us!

  5. Pingback: Week in Lab: Planning for 2011-12 | Reflections on Teaching

  6. I purposely add one more question or prompt on each page than I would expect students to complete independently, and that one we do together; sometimes it’s at the top of the page, sometimes at the bottom, sometimes in the middle. This initiates the task, and gives students the feeling that the job is underway. Proceeding from there, and finishing strongly, then seems so much easier.

    I also require students to write a four line heading on every lined page, stacked to the left (Name, Date, Periods, Assignment Name). This successfully defines the assignment, but also makes an impressive “dent” in the blank space of the page, causing the student to think, “Well, it appears I’m well on my way.”

    Like you, I appreciate knowing there’s some scientific research and a name behind this practice. Thanks as always for an interesting post!

    • Good ideas, Keith. Thanks.

    • great idea, Keith.
      I teach art for an after-school program. I usually can tell the confused ones because they will have an empty paper as well. I ask them to write a name first, now. They can claim the paper even if it is blank at the end of the session. The pressure is off to make the “perfect piece”. Now they can draw at leisure and it creates as they continue. I am also a homeschool mom to Jr. High/ High School and a co-op teacher.
      Great article. I look forward to reading more.

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