7 Insights on The Impact of Multitasking in Education

Multitasking is a reality of education in the digital age. Even if teachers limit it during classes, it happens while student engage in homework and throughout the rest of their day. Similarly, multitasking is not simply influencing students. It is an increasingly global reality. Of course, there is also much debate around the subject. Some focus upon how multitasking decreases retention and attention, while others speak about it as a critical work skill in the 21st century. Regardless of one’s focus, we can learn from good research and think pieces about the topic. While there is a significant existing body of literature, this is a topic of personal interest and there are always new and interesting publications on the subject. With that in mind, I usually set aside a few hours once or twice a year to find out what is new. Below is a selection of seven of the more interesting findings or commentaries on the subject. 

1. Motivated Students Multitask Less? – When studying multitasking habits of college students, the researchers in this study found less multitasking and shorter duration when multitasking among those with high homework motivation and self-efficacy.

Calderwood, C., Ackerman, P., & Conklin, E. (2014). What else do college students ‘do’ while studying? an investigation of multitasking. Computers and Education,75(June), 19-29.

2. It isn’t black and white. – The impact of multitasking on performance depends upon things like the difficulty of the task.

“The results show that when the primary task was considered difficult, subjects forced to multitask had significantly lower performance compared with not only the subjects who did not multitask but also the subjects who were able to multitask at their discretion. Conversely, when the primary task was considered easy, subjects forced to multitask had significantly higher performance than both the subjects who did not multitask and the subjects who multitasked at their discretion.”

Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2014). The effects of task difficulty and multitasking on performance. Interactive Computing, online. Retrieved from http://iwc.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/03/09/iwc.iwu005.short

3. Multitasking is not just a concern for educators. – Advertisers have a a keen interest as well, because they realize that multitasking results is less persistent memory of the advertising message and experience.

Duff, B. R., Yoon, G., Wang, Z., & Anghelcev, G. (2014). Doing it all: An explanatory study of predictors of media multitasking. Journal of Interactive Advertising14(1), Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15252

4. Multitasking might be on the rise? – In a study of 12 undergraduate students (obviously too small of a sample from which to generalize), researchers found significant increases in the frequency of switch tasking compared to earlier research.

One striking result was the quick pace of switches relative to reports in prior literature. One-?fth of all content was viewed for5 seconds or less, with 75% viewed for less than a minute. However, much of the existing literature on task-switching reports switches on the scale of several minutes. For example, Judd and Kennedy (2011) note that more than 20% of the computer sessions they observed involved students switching tasks, on average, at least every 2 minutes. Our results suggest that for devices with content selected serially on one screen, the effects of task-switching, both positive and negative in?uences, may be ampli?ed. On the downside, this suggests more concern that multitasking will deplete attention and diminish productivity. On the upside, for those who believe that multitasking practice has perceptual bene?ts, multitasking on a personal laptop may confer even greater advantages than presumed (p. 185).

Yeykelis, L., Cummings, J., & Reeves, B. (2014). Multitasking on a single device: Arousal and the frequency, anticipation, and prediction of switching between media content on a computer . Journal of Communication,64(1), 167-192. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcom.12070/full

5. If you can’t beat them, join them? – The article describes the reality of cell phones in college business classes, recognizes the impact on attention, but provides six practical ways that teachers can engage college business students with smartphones.

“Setting a balance between multitasking and mono-tasking is a vital step toward overcoming a potential drop off in production due to distractions created by multitasking. Unless instructors successfully ban all phones, they run the risk of phones being in use and having a detrimental effect during classes… …instructors can take the opposite approach. They can create ways to make smartphone usage contribute to the learning environment.”

Grinols, A. B., & Rajesh, R. (2014). Multitasking with smartphones in the college classroom. Business and Professional Communication Quarterly77(1), 1-7. Retrieved from http://bcq.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/01/26/2329490613515300

6. Students multitask more when they are stressed?

“We logged computer activity and used biosensors to measure stress of 48 students for 7 days for all waking hours, in their in situ environments. We found a significant positive relationship with stress and daily time spent on computers. Stress is positively associated with the amount of multitasking. Conversely, stress is negatively associated with Facebook and social media use. Heavy multitaskers use significantly more social media and report lower positive affect than light multitaskers.”

Mark, G., Wang, Y., & Niiya, M. (2014). Stress and multitasking in everyday college life: An empirical study of online activity.Proceedings of ACM CHI 2014, Retrieved from http://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/Home_page/Research_files/Millennial Camera-Ready Submission4.pdf

7. Multitasking shifts how our brain processes a learning experience. – This is not an empirical study, but a think piece that summarizes current research.

“Since encoding is the first of three successive memory stages (storage and retrieval are the other two), the quantity and quality of memory can be profoundly affected by multitasking. If a task is performed without multitasking, the hippocampus?a region of the brain involved in sorting, processing, and recalling information, and critical for declarative memory?remains active. Any distractive element (for example, a beep) shifts activity away from the hippocampus to the striatum, which is necessary for procedural memory (habitual tasks, such as riding a bike). Interestingly, memories in the hippocampus are easier to recall in situations different to that in which they were learned, whereas those stored in the striatum are tied closely to the specific situation. The implication is that learning with the striatum leads to knowledge that cannot be easily generalized in new situations (Foerde, Knowlton & Poldrack, 2006).”

Gruart, A. (2014). The role of neuroscience in education..and vice versa. International Journal of Educational Psychology3(1), 20-48. Retrieved from http://www.hipatiapress.com/hpjournals/index.php/ijep/article/view/941/pdf

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.