Multitasking Obsession is Making Learning Harder for Students

What did Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University – Dominquez Hills learn from watching students do homework? According to Annie Murphy Hall and the study Rosen published in the Computers in Human Behavior, he learned that the lure of multitasking is too strong for them to resist even when they know someone is watching.

Hall, who interviewed Rosen for an article on Slate.com, says that the professor was amazed that students repeatedly interrupted their work to check their Facebook or look at a video or indulge in other distractions, even when they were told that their behavior would be observed. Observers reported that even when kids were said to focus on “something important,” according to Annie Murphy Paul, the majority spent less than 65% of the 15 minutes they were being watched exclusively on that primary task.

And as she explains, that lack of focus is having a marked effect on the students’ ability to learn.

But evidence from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience suggests that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts. So detrimental is this practice that some researchers are proposing that a new prerequisite for academic and even professional success—the new marshmallow test of self-discipline—is the ability to resist a blinking inbox or a buzzing phone.

Rosen’s conclusion that keeping students on task is a challenge isn’t unique. Murphy Hall cites two additional studies that drew similar conclusions. Among the things that kept kids’ eyes away from their textbooks, social media services like Twitter and Facebook were by far the most popular, followed by emailing and texting.

And it’s not just kids. A study of law students carried out by New York’s St. John’s University found similar levels of distractions among second- and third-years who brought their laptops to class ostensibly to take notes. Nearly 60% of them used them for other things during the course of the lecture.

David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who’s studied the effects of divided attention on learning, takes a firm line on the brain’s ability to multitask: “Under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. It can happen only when the two tasks are both very simple and when they don’t compete with each other for the same mental resources. An example would be folding laundry and listening to the weather report on the radio. That’s fine. But listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook—each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.”

According to Murphy Paul, research indicates that concentration is a learned skill that students today are just not getting an opportunity to master. But Rosen insists that they can. When promised that they could enjoy a tech diversion after focusing entirely on the task at hand, students could go for 15 and eventually as many as 45 minutes without getting distracted.

To “help,” Rosen advocates making the classroom or homework space as tech-free as possible. After a set period, students get two minutes to go nuts.

So here’s the takeaway for parents of Generation M: Stop fretting about how much they’re on Facebook. Don’t harass them about how much they play video games. The digital native boosters are right that this is the social and emotional world in which young people live. Just make sure when they’re doing schoolwork, the cellphones are silent, the video screens are dark, and that every last window is closed but one.