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.


  1. I´m trying to take in and come to grasp the implications of what you´re saying. It all emphasizes my responsibility as a teacher, of course, which is an appropriate and highly relevant input in the conversation. And as you say, who doesn´t recognise having been forced to listen to a lecture that was downright boooring? Of course you want to escape, somehow.

    At the same time we have to deal with the human factor making students want to seek pleasure and enjoyment without having to contribute anything, seeking entertainment more than learning, a passive lifestyle more than an active engagement. Who doesn´t want to escape at times rather than solving those mounting problems?

    Pertinently, last week in Swedish radio (P1) there was a program highlighting the issue of ghostwriting in schools.This surely does raise some questions, I´d say.

  2. I fully believe that we need to teach attention in schools and universities (see especially Howard Rheingold). We have an ever-decreasing capacity for boredom and the second we get slightly bored or off focus then out comes the mobile. We need to learn to focus better and know when to be online and when to switch off.
    However in this post I felt that all the studies looked at multitasking during lectures which are rather seldom compelling. People have always multitasked in such passive situations and it's time to use the little contact time for more active learning than the standard university lecture. If students are actively involved I suspect the multitasking will decrease sharply.
    As for getting other people to do your school work for you see my recent post Remote Control

  3. I get your point, and I agree. Standard university lectures (and, I guess, u.s.s. lectures as well) can be less compelling.

    Now, when it comes to your other article (Remote controll...), I, again, agree with you totally (and, thanks for the link, I hadn´t read it before). It requires some stamina, however, as a teacher, when you´re approaching the end of the course and quite a number of students have not done anything. This means you as a teacher have not been a part of the writing process (because there has been no process). All of a sudden you´re being presented with a number of texts, next week it´s time to register the grades. One or two you recognise as being copies, others you just don´t know. You wonder: Who wrote this? What shall I do? This is something we need to talk about even more.

    But I guess this was not what this article was about from the beginning ...