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Multitasking in the Classroom

October 13, 2010

There have been several articles relating the latest cognitive and neurological investigations into how multitasking affects the brain, from the NYT article to PBS’ Frontline special Digital Nation. As studies (as yet largely speculative) are translated into lay terms, we are told that multitasking is the message of interactive media – that the logic of interactive media and access through wireless handheld devices leads to constant checking of email, texts, looking up information in a space where hyperlinks and interactive side bars lead us far away from our original purpose. The consequence for the brain is (over)stimulation of the decision making process. The consequence for cognition is that we are in a constant state of anticipation. This fight or flight pose toward on-line interaction limits our short term memory (which Google will gladly compile and house for us) and our ability to mull over ideas in ways that allow for creative thought, deep analysis, or synthesis. Multi-tasking also may be associated with higher levels of anxiety and attention deficit.

These preliminary studies lend support to a common classroom policy banning student use of handheld wireless devices during class (i.e. laptops and cell phones). But we actually know very little in terms of how students perceive and respond to these rules, and much less about the consequences of wireless devices on student learning in the classroom. In an upper level undergraduate seminar in sociology called Media, Culture and Society, my students and I explored these questions. While this exploration is by no means representative or comprehensive, the exercise helped me to reflect on how I incorporate technology into the classroom and raised some pedagogical questions that deserve further study.

The set up:
The main lesson plan for the day was to give a short lecture on Marshall McLuhan. As students filed in I handed them a folded slip of paper with one of the following instructions:

  • A: Focus your undivided attention on the lecture. You may use the computer to take notes in Microsoft Word. Please do not open any web browsers or use any hand held communication devices (i.e. smart phones).
  • B: Focus on the lecture. Feel free to multi-task on-line. However, please keep your activities discreet so you do not distract those around you.

The result:
At first I thought the lesson had failed. As I walked around the room I observed no multitasking screens. Every student contributed to the discussion. Many handwrote their notes and didn’t use the computers at all. Afterward, when I asked them about whether they followed the instructions three students tentatively raised their hands. Hoping for the best, I asked them to get into pairs based on the two sets of instructions and compare their experiences of the interactive lecture.
As the discussion opened up, the multitasking students told me they had followed their instructions, checking email, and looking up course related information on-line. In fact, most of the students did do some multitasking. They just did so discreetly and without missing a beat.

(A) I found it very difficult not to do it. My Blackberry kept going off (silently) and I was so curious about the emails I was getting. It was very hard not to check it.

Multitasking is far more prevalent than instructors might realize. Students are used to prohibitions on electronic distractions and know when and how to work around them.

(A) Every teacher says not to use the Internet, but it’s impossible. It made a difference that these instructions were in writing for this particular session. That scared me, especially since we just started, so I took it seriously. It was hard to suppress the urge though.

What emerged from the discussion was illuminating in terms of the pace of multitasking. Multitasking, students explained, is lightest at the beginning of a semester when they are getting used to the instructor, their classroom style and their pace. It is also lighter at this time, I believe, because they have a refreshed focus on school work and a less hectic schedule.
There are also particular moments within a class session where the urge to multitask beckons:

(A) There was one particular moment that was excruciatingly difficult not to multitask – when you erased the board in silence between our discussions of the two readings. I just wanted to check my email, to know what had come in. If I hadn’t had the instructions, I probably would have.

We then moved into a discussion of the effects of multitasking on their learning. Rather than cleave into two sides for or against multitasking, a consensus began to emerge that it was not whether you multitasked or not, but how, when, and why you were doing it that mattered.

(A) I think that multitasking is a skill that you learn and you learn how to do it effectively without getting overwhelmed or distracted. I was in a public high school that had a partnership with Apple and we all (students) had computers. We grew up multitasking in school and over time we learned how to learn that way. But I can see how for those who are just exposed to computers in the classroom now that it will take some time for them to use them effectively.

Others explained how some multitasking is useful to their learning and makes them more active and efficient learners:

(B) I was glad to get the instruction to multitask because I rely on my computer for note taking. My handwriting is illegible. I think it makes me more efficient as a learner because if you (the teacher) say a word I’ve never heard I can just look it up and catch up to speed, rather than go home later and look it up in a book, which would take longer and I probably would never get around to it. I’d also be lost during the lecture.

Other students agreed that access was useful to enhance their learning through the ability to merge information in electronic documents. They are linking their lecture notes, excerpts from readings, on-line dictionary entries and Wikipedia entries on theories and authors. Others claim that a quick email check during a transitional moment in lecture can revitalize their energy and attention, like hitting a reset button.
There are however ways that multitasking hinders the quality of their learning:

(B) I disagree about the efficiency argument that was just made. It may be more efficient but the ability to multitask can divide your attention to the point where you may get things done but you may not be doing them to the best of your ability. For example, last year I was planning an (extracurricular) event and I had at least one hundred emails to take care of. I did it during one of my favorite classes and I really didn’t get much out of it that day. It was efficient because I planned the event and attended class, but both my emails and my notes suffered.

This kind of “bad-use” of multitasking has less to do with the course design or with multitasking technologies themselves than a more general cultural mindset that we should constantly be overbooked and “getting things done.”

The take away:
In considering the effects of on-line multitasking, we should remember that students have always lost focus or been distracted by outside concerns (how many times have you seen a student fall asleep or write to do lists in the margins of their notes despite your best efforts to engage them?). It’s not possible to micro manage student attention and it’s not necessary to feel like their straying is a failure on your part as an instructor. This is important to know regardless of your technology policy.

What I take away from this discussion with my students is that in courses where I allow the use of wireless devices that I will talk with them openly at the beginning of the semester about appropriate and inappropriate multitasking. Part of their task is to work on developing their ability to focus and use technology in ways that are both efficient and fruitful. That requires honest reflection on everyone’s part. Part of my job will be to make sure that distracting uses are curtailed, even when that distraction is coming from external pressures, such as those experienced by the event planner above.

To me what makes it worth all of this extra discussion worth it in my field (rather than an outright ban) is that I think multitasking will be a structural feature of the tools they use for work, leisure, and their relationships with others. I see part of my role as an educator to help them make sense of this social fact and to learn skills not to become “media slaves.”

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