Feature focusing

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Brief statement of principle

Instruction leads to more robust learning when it guides the learner's attention ("focuses") toward relevant features of the material, as opposed to unfocused instruction or instruction that guides attention toward on irrelevant features.

Description of principle

This principle involves encouraging students to focus on the key knowledge components in the educational material they are studying. Feature focusing instruction may help students to learn knowledge components with higher feature validity. More geneally, attention focusing may also result in students spending more time during a learning event on a particular knowledge component and thus increase its strength.

Operational definition

Instruction that guides the student to key knowledge components will result in superior long-term retention than unfocused instruction.


Examples include the Note-Taking studies in the Refinement and Fluency cluster.

Experimental support

Laboratory experiment support

Two note-taking studies have found that when copy-pasting notes, students perform better on both Normal post-tests and long-term retention tests when they make selections that include only single ideas, rather than multiple ideas. While behavioral interventions have been effective in reducing selection size, they have not produced increased learning outcomes. With regards to note-taking students' ability to identify key knowledge components may be limited by their understanding of the material, rather than the note-taking interface.

In vivo experiment support

Theoretical rationale

Feature focusing is a refinement process, where students are identifying the key ideas, and rejecting irrelevant or unimportant ideas. With regards to feature focusing in learning of explicit textual content, focusing on key ideas may be related to previous results where summaries were found to produce superior outcomes to full text (see Reder & Anderson).

Conditions of application

Caveats, limitations, open issues, or dissenting views

Variations (descendants)

Generalizations (ascendants)


  • Bauer, A., Koedinger, K. 2008. Note-Taking, Selecting, and Choice: Designing Interfaces that Encourage Smaller Seelctions. Joint Conference on Digital Libraries (JCDL 2008). To Appear.
  • Bauer, A., Koedinger, K. 2007. Selection-Based Note-Taking Applications. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’07). 981-990.
  • Bauer, A., Koedinger, K. 2006. Pasting and Encoding: Note-taking in Online Courses. IEEE ICALT ’06. 789-793.
  • Reder, L. M. & Anderson, J. R. (1980a). A comparison of texts and their summaries: memorial consequences. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 198, 121-134.