Multi-tasking: its benefits and limits

According to Sanbonmatsu et al. (2013), when people multi-task, they simultaneously engage in two or more functionally independent tasks and each task has specific goals, mental transformation, and response outputs. You can have an active conversation with your friends when walking across campus. But when the tasks require cognitive processes such as reading, listening, and writing, it is hard to be done at the same time.

In the classroom, students can provide several reasons why they use electronic devices such as computers and tablets in class. The first reason is to take notes. E-notes have become so popular since it is so easy for students to access their notes when they need even a semester or years after that. They can also directly add notes on lecture slides. Therefore, e-notes have a big advantage over paper notes. Besides, these devices are very helpful when students need to look up specific information related to a topic being discussed in class such as new words or examples. Electronic devices are also helpful when students need to share their work with their classmates or review their classmates’ work.

However, when these electronic devices are available, it is tempting to check email, surf the Internet, and update on social media during the class. When students try to listen to their teachers or a discussion and be on the Internet at the same time, they cannot 100% focus on either the classroom environment around them or the online interactions. A study of Kuznekoff and Titsworth (2013) published on Communication Education showed that using mobile phones during class time could affect the learning process. In fact, students who did not use their mobile phones took more detailed notes (62% more information), recalled more information for the lecture, and got a higher grade (one and a half letter grade) on the test compared to students who actively used their phones (for texting and Facebook interactions). The authors explained that when students learn new information, there are several components in the process, including short-term memory, working memory, long-term memory, and metacognition. Since learning is a process, if any components are impaired or interrupted (for example, texting diverts students’ attention from the target task), the information processed in short/working memory may be incomplete, which results in insufficient storage of information in long-term memory.

Actually, when students multitask, they are not doing two (or more) things at once. Instead, they are shifting from one to another. A study of Ophir et al. (2009) suggested that for students who frequently switch their attention from one activity to another (heavy media multi-taskers), they may have more difficulty to filter out irrelevant distraction in the environment than light media multi-taskers.

Personally, I will allow my students to use their computers in class, but I will set up limits on how their computers should be used and explain to them about the learning purposes of these limits.


Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff & Scott Titsworth (2013). The Impact of Mobile Phone Usage on Student Learning, Communication Education, 62:3, 233-252, DOI: 10.1080/03634523.2013.767917

Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(37), 15583–15587.

Sanbonmatsu DM, Strayer DL, Medeiros-Ward N, Watson JM (2013). Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54402. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0054402

7 thoughts on “Multi-tasking: its benefits and limits

  1. Vartan

    Thank you for this quite informative post. The references are quite useful. I think multi-tasking also depends on the type of tasks we do. For instance, when I have to perform a mundane task, such as running identical codes on different data sets, I rather have the TV open simultaneously. Most of my attention is on the main task, but until the code is done running I can also entertain myself.

  2. A. Nelson

    I agree with Vartan — whether or not multi-tasking (or attempting to multitask) is “productive” or not depends on the nature of the task at hand and what kind of thinking (and attention) is involved.

  3. Jake Keyel

    Thanks for your post Hanh. I think you’ve landed on a good compromise, allowing students to use technology but setting limits. I’ve allowed computers in my classroom and I know some students are surfing the internet and Gchatting, Facebook, etc. But I also know some are taking notes, looking up things relevant to class and so forth. I think the latter uses are really valuable. I take all my notes on a laptop now and it’s way easier for me than paper notes. Plus they are searchable.

  4. socl123

    Great post! I think your approach to setting limits and boundaries on how students are to use technology in the classroom is a plus – and should be discussed in all classrooms. When I was in undergrad we could not have laptops in class. It would have been helpful as I had such a difficult time taking notes at the pace of the lecture. On the other hand, a laptop could have served as a distraction if I was not that “in” to the lecture.

  5. Michelle Soledad

    Thank you for sharing these resources, Hanh! Personally, multi-tasking is a concept that I find hard to relate to, mainly because it is something that I have not been able to do so far. I cannot, for example, listen to music and read/study at the same time, something that others have found particularly helpful. I agree with Jake that allowing your students to still use computers in class but setting boundaries is a good compromise; it shows students that you consider their thought process and approach to learning, but helps keep them in check as well. Great post!

  6. Elizabeth C.

    I also enjoyed the references you provided. In today’s day and age, our students are involved in so many things that it’s almost inevitable they will multitask during class. Heck, I know I do. I’m so busy that I try to maximize my time by multitasking. I’ll admit, I’m not always super engaged in one activity with my attention is being divided between several tasks. The same is true for our students. Honestly, I believe it’s their job to manage their multitasking and whatever attention it demands. If they are happen to not be engaged in class or the learning environment I work to create, then that’s their loss.

  7. Emmajoy

    Hanhe Le, thank you for this eye-opener and informative article.
    I believed the general public needs to be educated on this. It appears that not many people know that multitasking has limits. Vast majority of those who practice multitasking seems to believe that it increases their productivity.
    However, although multitasking tends to increase the rate or speed at which task is being carried out, the accuracy or quality of the individual task is usually directly or indirectly be affected.
    Generally, I believe we should reduce multitasking and pay more attention to those things that are important in our lives.
    Furthermore, I want to sincerely agree with Sanbonmatus et al., definition. It’s just an act of paying attention to multiple independent tasks at the same time.
    Also, thanks for citing the references, they are helpful.

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