Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Why Learning and Multitasking Don’t Mix.

Technology is a ubiquitous part of the learning programme at UWCSEA, and we believe that when it is used well, technology can transform both the types of learning activities that occur and the content which we teach. At the same time, the proliferation of laptops and other devices provide a constant temptation for our students who are looking for a distraction. The most recent research by professors has highlighted the risks of trying to multitask while simultaneously trying to engage with the learning of something new.

The Temptations of Technology

Researchers at California State University, led by psychology Professor Larry Rosen observed students studying over a 15 minute period and recorded the different tasks they were completing. Throughout the observation, students on-task behaviour began to decline at around the two minute mark when the temptation of sending a text, or checking their Facebook feed became too much. Over the 15 minute experiment roughly 60% of the time was spent actually doing schoolwork. This research was presented by Rosen in the May 2013 issue of Computers in Human Behaviour.

If parents were to complete the same timed experiment at home with their children, the same behaviour would likely occur. Rosen and others, mention this behaviour as a characteristic of the current generation of students. They have repeated a much quoted marshmallow test from the 1970’s, designed to illustrate the concept of delaying gratification. In this iteration, college students were asked to watch a 30 minute videotaped lecture, during which they were sent eight text messages, while others in the group were sent four or zero messages. Most interestingly, the students who responded to the experimenters’ tests straight away, scored significantly worse than those participants who waited until the end of the lecture to send a reply. This kind of compulsive behaviour can be observed in our students, who feel the need to disengage with the learning to check status updates, view posts on Tumblr or to reply to a chat in Skype.

Our school is unique in that we have provided the access to a laptop or an iPad in a learning context from a younger age than other public European or American schools. We are therefore grappling with the issues of distraction and multitasking ahead of most parts of society. We are beginning to realise that there is a new skill set required to be a student in this modern age, and that is the ability to delay digital gratification and to try maintain a focus on learning my completing one task at a time.

A changing skill set

As our students grow older and move through our school, they will slowly develop the coping mechanism to postpone checking in, and to single task on learning. This trait develops in different students at different times and for some students it might never develop. A key finding from research by Psychology Professor David Mayer at the University of Michigan is that “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.”

An important task for our students it to therefore make the distinction between simple and complex tasks and to realise when multitasking and juggling is ineffective. It might seem perverse, but our students can use technology to manage digital distractions and the temptation of multitasking. One new product called Concentrate, fits very nicely with our philosophy around students developing strategies to remain on task. Concentrate allows students to develop a list of actions that they would like their computer to perform when they wish to single task. The application allows students to block website access, to stop applications from opening , block emails and set timers. Together these tools are a first step to help students develop coping mechanisms. Overtime we hope that parents and teachers can use tools such as Concentrate as a discussion starter around what they think is acceptable, thereby encouraging students to buy into the process.

Concentrate is similar to other applications such as the aptly named SelfControl which is used to block websites, or the time management tool iProcrasinate which are both very popular with our students. From next year we will be installing Concentrate all student laptops and will work with them to develop routines both at home and at school.


This post was adapted to the UWCSEA context and based on the following two articles. These were recently written by Annie Murphy Paul and published on the Mindshift.

How does Multitasking Change the Way Kids Learn?
With Tech Tools how should teachers tackle multitasking in class

Further Reading: 

Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying
Larry D. Rosen, L. Mark Carrier, Nancy A. Cheever,
Computers in Human Behavior 29 (2013) 948–958

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Presentation available from YouTube