Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficiency

Picture this scene.  After having braved the northern highways in a winter storm for two hours, I had just settled into my hotel room. It was homework time, but I also needed to finish a presentation for the next morning. I settled on the bed with my Chromebook on my lap, turned on the television to find the hockey game. Time to start the tasks at hand.

I open the university’s LMS system and begin to read the instructions to the week’s activities. “Maybe I should find some music” I start to think. As I mute the hockey game, I proceed to find a station on the Spotify app on my phone. Perfect. I can see the hockey game over my computer screen, I have music, all is well. Back to the computer.

As I peer at my screen, I am reminded of the fact that I haven’t checked Twitter and start following the #edchat hashtag. A few tweets later, I return to the course schedule where I begin my readings. As I read, I open new tabs on my browser, all of which are Padlet walls in which I’m jotting down blogging ideas. All the while, I occasionally glance at the presentation tab and remind myself that I need to get to that. My brain is in absolute overdrive.

Some call it multitasking. I’m not sure, but I know that I’m distracted. And I’m not convinced that I’m doing anything right. I can do better, if I could only FOCUS. In fact, approximately 5% of the population can effectively multitask, and I’m convinced that I may not be one of them; however, I do know that technology is feeding the distraction.

The 21st century learner: the multitasker?

We’ve been concerned with our students’ rewired brain since Prensky coined the term “digital native” and suggested that the students in our classrooms are natural multitaskers. Perhaps. Other studies are revealing what some teachers already suspected. Our students aren’t multitasking; in fact, they are switching tasks, or becoming distracted. Is it the same?

When I get bored, lose engagement, or tire of working on the same task, I consciously shift my attention to something else. I “take a break” from it. Other times, I become distracted by an idea, instinctively begin to think of another task, and find myself opening another tab on my computer. It’s a cycle. I’m multitasking because I’m distracted, and because I’m so used to multitasking, I’m more easily distracted. It makes me more sensitive to stimuli.

What’s going on with our students? Much of the same.

What does that mean for learning? Research indicates that multitasking  can lead to a decrease in information retention, therefore resulting in lower grade performance. This seems pretty obvious when we talk about certain types of multitasking, such as texting, but it is in fact applicable in most situations. Multitasking in general seems to require more effort than single tasks, in addition to requiring more time. According to Kirschner and Van Merriënboer (2013), they are actually dividing their attention rather than shifting it.

This doesn’t sound like effective learning.

We can’t deny that cellphones and other technological tools are indispensable in the 21st century classroom, so what do we do? We can’t ban them. So how do we need to teach students to use technology responsibly?

Dealing with distracted learning

1. Students need to understand that multitasking isn’t efficient. They need to see this.

One way to help them come to the conclusion is by having them complete a few multitasking tests. The data will speak for itself. Here are a few online tests that you can use:

Gatekeeper Task for Supertaskers

National Geographic Test

Awareness Test

 2. Use distraction to benefit learning. Students can access multiple types and sources of information while staying on task. Multiple processes can be working together to solve a problem, to answer a question, to construct a informed reflection. This is particularly applicable to inquiry-based learning.

3. Teach and encourage self regulation in the classroom. First off, activities much be engaging for the student if we expect students to invest their efforts. Students must learn to set goals, plan according to these goals, employ the right strategies to access the necessary resources, all the while focusing on the task at hand. This requires an array of skills.

You can find an assortment of activities and information on self regulation at the following site.

4. Disconnecting. It is important that students learn in a variety of situations. Though applications and sites can mimic different settings, nothing beats experiencing the real deal. Face-to-face discussion and hands on experiences need to take place to make a balanced learner. Besides, students need a break from the stimuli to think about their learning.

Students will distract themselves whether there is technology in front of them or not. I distinctly recall passing notes, colouring my handouts, and dreaming up scenarios in many of my classes. Perhaps if I had a cellphone, I would have been more productive.

We aren’t quite winning this game, unfortunately. Evidence of this is the number of teachers that ban cellphones in their classrooms, and that isn’t going to solve the problem. If we truly want to prepare our students for the future, we want the student that graduates to know how to handle these environments.