Teaching Tip #8: The Zeigarnik Effect

It was the year 1920. Bluma Zeigarnik, a Lithuanian scholar in Gestalt psychology sat in a restaurant watching waiters. Zeigarnik noticed that the waiters seemed to remember complex orders that guided them to deliver the right combination of food to the tables, and yet the information vanished as the food was delivered. Zeigarnik observed that the uncompleted orders seemed to stick in the waiters’ minds until they were actually completed. This went on to become the famous ‘Zeigarnik effect’ where there seems to be a Need for Closure, a desire in the minds to end states of uncertainty and resolve unfinished business. 

You will notice that the Zeigarnik effect improves productivity because when we experience intrusive or nagging thoughts about uncompleted tasks, we become anxious and tend to multitask less and focus on the incomplete task more. Nothing is so common as the guilt pangs we feel every time we procrastinate. You will notice this in your classroom too. There will be some students who will refuse to get started and keep chewing their pencil butts, caught in the throes of the Zeigarnik effect! That is when you need to step in with your antidote. Help the student get focused with something that will start the task, but definitely leave it incomplete. Say you want the student to create a mind map of the poem Daffodils. Tell them to create a single bubble at the centre with the name of the poem and the poet and draw the flower. Then suggest another bubble called what the poet saw and enter the first observed item. Leave them. They will get restless till they complete the bubble and move on to create the next one. The incompleteness helps them overcome procrastination!

Author: Sonali Bhattacharyya

© Oxford University Press