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.


13 Replies to “The Myth of Multitasking”

  1. Great thoughts! You have definitely thought this through!

    In reflecting upon some of my own habits, it’s clear that I struggle with this. I previously would have liked to say I am good at multi-tasking (clearly, I am not), but I do many things to try to make myself successful.

    I will put my phone out of sight if I am trying to get something done. I will put it on silent, too. There is something about the old saying “out of sight, out of mind” that is true.

    I also have different windows and tabs for different classes. None of them have social media open, though, because if I saw that, I would get distracted. I also don’t use pop-up email notifications because of this.

    In reflecting, I am designing my computer and work ethic to be multitask-less (I made up that word). I am trying to keep my focus singular because it works better, which reinforces the entire point of your thoughts!

    1. Hi Kathleen,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences!

      I think it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep singular focus, as graduate students have so many different roles that demand our attention seemingly all the time.

      I really applaud your concerted efforts to reduce distractions! Research would suggest your efficacy will improve as a result 🙂

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post. While I thought I was good at multitasking, I am learning that I am actually great at “switching tasks”! I am not sure if this is good or bad or just the reality that we juggle a lot a once. I often think about what my policy will be when it comes to technology. I want to empower students to make choices and learn to be cognoscente of their peers by using technology in mainly class related ways, but is this a realistic expectation? I think in some setting maybe yes, but if you have a large lecture based course where there is less interaction, it becomes harder. I do like the idea of signing the pledge. I wonder how well it works.

    1. Hi Carlisle,

      I share a lot of your concerns as far as technology in the classroom.

      I will say I’ve seen a number of students who have signed the pledge using their laptops for things unrelated to class content, but my supervising instructor said students are usually pretty honest about that and discuss it in their reflections.

  3. Diana,
    I think you point to an important issue in dealing with attention and technology in the classroom – How do you actually enforce a policy once you decide to implement it? I like that you stress to your students that they are ultimately responsible for their own learning. I think we all assume this but rarely tell our students that explicitly. It might seem self evident to us, but for students, who are coming from a high school environment where there is much more structure (too much if you ask me) this change could be confusing and difficult.

    1. Hi Heath,

      I think the transition from high school to college is one that faculty often take for granted! I know the sentiment has been shared a number of times, but as we get older every year, our freshmen classes will always be 18 (with exceptions for students in different stages).

      In high school, students have to ask to go to the bathroom, and have their courses structured around standardized tests, with regimented study guides and planned activities. I think those of us who teach freshmen classes ought to scaffold constructive and sustainable practices for our students, which is why I am making a point to place my students at the center of their education.

  4. I love how you break down the different cognitive facets of attention and multi-tasking… It reminded my of some of my favorite classes, like Human Information Processing, that talks about these things exactly, going into a lot of detail about how people process different stimuli, either in isolation or in tandem with other stimuli, and our effectiveness in doing so. The gorilla video is a common example of these concepts.

    As far as technology in the classroom goes, on principle, I like the idea of banning technology from the classroom, simply because it is– far more often than not– a major distraction for the student, and potentially for those around them too. In practice, however, I know that some students get real benefits from being able to look things up related to the class or take notes that they can actually search on later. Heck, even I do this… In one of my classes this semester, I like having the lecture slides open on my computer while I take hand-written notes (you know, when I’m not getting distracted and doing other things on my computer…) Take these factors into account along with the fact that the classes I teach are Computer Science courses, and now we have a whole new can of worms. You literally can’t learn Computer Science concepts without experiencing them for yourself– to actually write the code, run it, make changes to it, and form a thorough understanding of what the code is doing and how it’s doing it. And all of that requires a computer. At this point, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that technology will be a part of my classrooms. They have to be, at least in some part. And so therefore, it really has to be to students’ responsibility to pay attention and follow along in class (which, of course, not everyone does).

    1. Hi Michelle,

      We actually talked about Information Processing approaches in the lecture with this information, too! One of the great advantages of Human Development as a field is the understanding of and focus on individual differences.

      It would certainly be a challenge to control technology use in classes where technology is necessary to the structure and function of the class! I will say that when students have a more engaged activity (rather than just taking notes on lectures) in class, they do engage in fewer distraction behaviors, so that might be going in your favor in Computer Science!

  5. It’s interesting that you used the phrase “inappropriate ways”. I’m curious, is it just inappropriate because they are violating the pledge or is it inappropriate because of the type of sites that are being visited/activities undertaken? Is there something inherently inappropriate about not paying attention if the student is paying to be here?

    I much more like your direction of “establishing my students as responsible for their own education and discussing choices, consequences and accountability” because this is more focused on a teachable skill/outcome/way of thinking about the world. There are consequences in the work world for using your cellphone in certain types of meetings, and some people will only learn by being pulled aside or called out in front of a room full of professionals (the latter of which I’ve unfortunately had to).

    1. Hi Julia,

      Thanks for sharing your perspective.

      I would stand by my use of inappropriate as a descriptor of technology use unrelated to the course. In the first week of class, we go over the syllabus and discuss class conduct and expectations (completing work on time, getting excuses in a timely manner, email etiquette, etc.) and as part of that we discuss technology use when the pledge is introduced. We also talk about how distraction doesn’t only impact the person engaged in distraction behavior, but also surrounding students’ educational experience is negatively impacted, and thus define the appropriate behavior in the context of the course. Students who are not paying attention to the lecture and specifically those who are using their phones/laptops in ways that don’t pertain to course content are thus in opposition to socially appropriate behavior. In particular, those who signed the pledge agreeing not to engage in those behaviors and do so anyway are not only violating social norms but also their own agreement.

      As you said, there are real world consequences of using your phones in certain situations, suggesting that there are appropriate and inappropriate times to use your cell phone. When I establish my students as responsible for their own education, they are then tasked with self-regulating and engaging in appropriate technology use in the course.

  6. I definitely sympathize with the technology policy decisions- I am also trying to decide whether to allow laptops/iPads, etc. I also really liked the example of having students sign a pledge then doing a reflection- I think that can be a cool way to encourage self-analysis on technology behaviors while still allowing students to make their own decisions regarding their choices in the classroom.

    1. Hi MK,

      I definitely understand the difficulties in making decisions about technology. I think it’s going to be a problem that increases in frequency in the next few years. Unfortunately, there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, as different classes have different needs and logistical constraints!

      I hope you find a policy that works for you!

  7. Interesting post! One, because this is a tricky question and two, being a student and now a teacher, I can understand the perspective of both the groups. I enjoyed reading the research article “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own
    Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity” and having a certain thing out of sight do makes it resistible for some time.
    When I think about the Technology policy for the class, I find it difficult to draw the line. I want my students to use technology for quick searches and ideas (as I often do that) for better discussions in the class but laptops/cellphones can be a big distraction too.

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