The Myth of Multitasking

I was very excited that this was a topic of discussion for our blogs this week because I just gave a lecture to my HD 1004 class on Tuesday about the myth of multitasking. Please watch this short video before reading the rest of this post!

As I told them, when you think you’re multitasking, you’re really just doing two (or more) things poorly. Basically, when we say multitasking, we’re referring to one of two things:

Switch-tasking – the act of alternating between two (or more) attention-demanding tasks, or

Background tasking – the act of working on an attention-demanding task while something mundane is going on at the same time.

Texting while driving, grading while parenting, listening to a lecture while shopping online are all example of switch-tasking, or things people think they can do at the same time, but logistically and cognitively cannot. Background tasking can be commonly illustrated by listening to music while studying or having a podcast on while cleaning, but even these activities can get dicey. Have you ever been reading with Netflix on in the background and realized you’ve gone three pages without absorbing any content because you’ve actually been caught up in the 645th reveal of A in Pretty Little Liars? Or have you been cleaning your room and gotten so zoned in on folding and putting away clothes that you missed the half of the guest’s story?

Our brains are all-powerful organs and yet they have limits.

Working memory – the accessible state of memory retention; related to an immediate task (15 – 25 second storage)

The general rule of thumb is that you can keep 5-9 pieces of information in your working memory at a time (think about the ways we break up cell phone and credit card numbers into smaller groups of 4 digits, rather than 10 or 16 at a time). Attention isn’t the same as memory.

Attention – an active processing of information

Selective attention – the ability attend to only certain stimuli when multiple stimuli occur simultaneously

Divided attention/Split attention – the ability to process information from different sources simultaneously and probably a source from which the myth of multitasking developed

The video at the start of this post is a common selective attention task and also helps to illustrate some of the problems associated with the idea of multitasking. When I showed it to my class, about half the class actually saw the gorilla without it being pointed out. This suggests (as with all things) there are individual differences in cognitive capacity. The students who didn’t notice the gorilla the first time around can help to illustrate the way our brains work when we’re switch-tasking. If you’re trying to do two attention-requiring and unrelated tasks, your brain cannot process information from the two areas at the same time. The idea of divided attention complicates things a bit because the notion lends itself to the possibility of multitasking; however, divided attention is really referring to two different sources of information for the same or closely related tasks (e.g., reading powerpoint slides while listening to a lecture, not listening to a lecture while checking email).

Many professors and instructors know that students who have their laptops/phones/tablets out in class aren’t necessarily paying the best attention and so the challenge, addressed in some of the readings for this week, becomes what to do with technology in the classroom. The professor for whom I’m TA-ing this semester offers an extra credit opportunity for his students. At the beginning of the semester, students who choose to will sign a pledge not to use social media or technology unrelated to the course (taking notes on a laptop, accessing readings or slides on Canvas, for example, are fine). Those who sign the pledge are then eligible to write a reflection at the end of the semester, assessing their own ability to keep up with their promise and how it impacted their course experience.

I like his strategy, but through class observations, I know that many of the students who signed the pledge are still engaging with their technology in inappropriate ways during class. Further, I am working with a lab in my department to conduct an experimental study on the effect of cell phone presence and social media interaction on cognitive function. Did you know just having your cell phone visible can reduce cognitive performance?

In light of this, I am still struggling to figure out what my technology policy will be. A good portion of my first class is dedicated to establishing my students as responsible for their own education and discussing choices, consequences and accountability. Right now, I have that message and a class activity reading an article about distractions in class with a reflection activity with no other official technology policy, but I’m not sure that’s the way to go. I am interested in hearing my peers’ thoughts about the ideas of attention, multitasking and technology in the classroom.