Friday, September 28, 2012
Multitasking in class
An article in Faculty Focus caught my attention a couple of days ago, Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t. I find the whole multitasking concept as tiresome as digital natives and dividing up humanity in tidy generations (X, Y, Z whatever) but this article raises more questions than it answers. It refers to several academic studies showing how students who multitask
retained less from a lecture than those who had no distractions.
"With easy access to all sorts of technology, students multitask. So do lots of us for that matter. But students are way too convinced that multitasking is a great way to work. They think they can do two or three tasks simultaneously and not compromise the quality of what they produce. Research says that about 5% of us multitask effectively. Proof of the negative effects of multitasking in learning environments is now coming from a variety of studies."
While I agree that it's good to burst the bubble that people can work effectively whilst multitasking it's interesting that nearly all the studies look at multitasking during lectures. Why do people multitask during a lecture? Since it's mostly one-way communication students often switch off and are easily distracted. Whether they get distracted by checking Facebook, web sites, games etc or resort to analogue distractions such as doodling, writing letters, reading the paper or solving a crossword makes no difference. This isn't a new phenomenon at all but computers and mobiles just offer more enticing distractions.
Any situation where students or colleagues are forced to sit passively listening for long periods will cause many to switch off. If you're not actively involved in the session you will check your messages and news and if you don't have a computer handy you will start to daydream or plan a future event. This has nothing to do with multitasking. I'd like to see studies that reveal how little multitasking takes place when students are fully involved in a learning situation and are taking responsibility for their learning.
People don't multitask simply because the distractions are available. They multitask when the current activity is not sufficiently interesting and they have no active role to play.