Switch off

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In the context of learning, a switch off occurs when the learner stops actively engaging with the material being learned. A switch off could occur in a classroom instructional setting, a group study setting, or a self-learning setting using a video, book, or other means.

Broad reasons for switch off

Reasons unrelated to the learning context

People may switch off for these reasons:

  • They are thinking about another topic that is distracting them.
  • They are fatigued, hungry, or otherwise physically distracted.

Reasons related to the physical context of the learning environment but not to the learning itself

People may switch off for reasons such as:

  • They are not physically comfortable. Causes of physical discomfort could include visual distractions, bad lighting, bad seats, background noise, bad smells, or inappropriate climate control (including temperature and humidity).
  • They find it hard to follow the physical format of the learning presentation. For instance, their eyesight prevents them from clearly reading what is written on the board. The internet connection may be taking ages to stream the video they're watching to learn the material. They may have a hard time understanding the instructor's accent.

Lack of motivation or interest

Learners are likely to switch off if they don't get a sense of the purpose or motivation of what they're learning. Here, motivation is construed broadly. Some learners may prefer intrinsic, knowledge-based motivation, such as how learning what they're learning now will help them with future learning. Some learners may prefer motivation based on real-world application. Some learners may respond best to motivation in terms of whether the material will affect their grades.

Low opinion of format of learning

In some cases, students attend lectures because attendance is required or on the off-chance that instructors will say something important, but they don't use lectures as an important source of learning, because they don't learn much from lectures (this could be due to lectures in general being unsuitable, or the particular lecturer's style being unsuitable). In this case, the switch off may well be a conscious decision.


In some cases, learners switch off when the material seems too easy and does not use enough cognitive resources to keep the learner fully occupied. Thus, instructional materials that begin (lead in) with relatively easy material may lead the learner to believe that following the material will not take much effort, so the learner starts multitasking and gradually switches off. This is common in both instructional settings and self-learning settings. Even if the low level of learner attention is appropriate for the initial easy material, it may be insufficient when the material becomes harder.


In some cases, the material is literally too difficult for the learner to follow. Particularly when later parts of the material rely heavily on earlier parts, learners may find themselves lost and therefore find it easier to switch off than make (seemingly) futile attempts to continue paying attention.

Learning-specific distraction (subject matter)

In some cases, learners might get distracted by some part of the learning material, to the point that they keep thinking about that and don't pay attention to future material. For instance, a teacher may pose a problem to learners, discuss it, and move on, but a learner might be busy trying to understand the problem posed by the teacher even as the teacher has moved on to other subjects.

See also the split attention effect.

Anxiety or emotional issues induced by the learning context

Some examples are below:

  • A learner may feel worried or anxious after being unable to solve an exercise provided in the learning material (or posed by the instructor), and therefore unable to concentrate further.
  • A learner may feel offended at some remarks made by the instructor or fellow students that are perceived as negative about the learner's ability to grasp material, and this might hinder the learner's ability to grasp new material.