The Illusion of Multitasking and its Impact on Learning

Currently, I am sitting in the waiting room while my daughter is in her ballet class. I am inundated with distractions; the conversations around me, small children playing, and a large television broadcasting my adorable daughter’s class for all to see while waiting. My attention is constantly pulled from one mental task to the next. I cannot possibly be focusing on the words I’m typing while also responding to the mom next to me asking how I’m doing today. I’m either answering her questions or typing the words that you are reading now. While this is mostly within my control, it is still difficult to completely dedicate my cognitive efforts to typing this blog post. I would be much more productive in a room with minimal distractions. 

And so it is with our students and studying.

Whether they believe they are good at multitasking or not…they’re not. Sorry. “What is clear is that people are not capable of thinking two different thoughts at the same time” (1). Multitasking usually means attempting to complete two or more tasks requiring mental focus at the same time. Humans just cannot do this. Can you walk and have a conversation at the same time? Sure, because you probably don’t have to devote any conscious mental effort to remembering how to walk…just imagine if we had to talk ourselves through walking to the refrigerator for a snack. “Left then right then left and don’t forget to bend at the hips a bit.” 

That may sound a little silly, but that’s exactly what is happening when learning to ride a bike. I’ve taught my son how to ride his bike and I could almost experience his need to task-switch. He was able to focus on keeping the handle bars straight, but when he did this, he usually forgot to keep pedaling with his feet. So, I would remind him and his feet would get going, but then he began to lose control a bit of the handlebars. The ability to ride a bike, while learning, requires mental focus on several different tasks and we cannot do this…until it becomes automatic. That’s why we can walk and talk at the same time or enjoy a relaxing bike ride while conversing with our family. Walking and riding a bike have become automatic for us, so we can focus on another cognitively demanding task, like a conversation…but not so much for the novice walker or rider. 

And so it is with our students and studying…except studying never becomes automatic.

Here’s how I imagine the modern middle school/high school student studying: Notebook/textbook open, maybe looking over their notes, maybe attempting to answer some questions…while a television/cell phone/laptop is playing some form of audio/visual in the background. I see this, to a certain extent, in my classroom. If given a few minutes to study, students almost immediately begin placing earbuds in so they can listen to music. Some believe they should do this because they are good multitaskers, some do this because they believe listening and/or watching something helps them to concentrate and study. In reality, this usually means their attention is pulled in multiple directions. Again, they cannot allow for mental exertion of two tasks at once. They are either watching the latest season of Schitt’s Creek (highly recommend, by the way) or labeling the neuron. They are not doing both. And which do you believe wins out in the battle of entertainment versus classroom material? Yeah…probably not a proper recipe for studying and remembering. 

So, if humans cannot cognitively multitask, what are we doing in these instances? The term is task switching. Please check out this article by Dr. Yana Weinstein-Jones for a great explanation and simple experiment to use in class to talk to your students about the illusion of multitasking. 

Ok. So what? The students are not doing the tasks simultaneously, they are just switching between them…what’s the big deal?

Well…students are wasting time. In Dr. Weinstein-Jones’ experiment above, it took her students around 55 seconds to complete two simple cognitive tasks (counting from 1-26 and stating the letters of the alphabet) when task switching (saying A, 1, B, 2, C, 3….). In contrast, it only took her students around 10 seconds to complete the tasks independently of each other. So, around 20 seconds to count to 26 out loud and recite the alphabet instead of almost one minute to switch between the tasks. Of course, these are simple tasks, but I can only imagine the time wasted would increase when students switch between their course work and some form of entertainment. Also, they will likely not remember as much of either activity while task switching. “The mental fatigue caused by repeatedly dropping and picking up a mental thread leads to more mistakes” (2). When consistently task switching, the brain is somewhat impaired and very well may be unable to encode the necessary content to make sense of and form robust schemas of information. So, task-switching is a much less effective and efficient way to learn and study. 

Our students need to know this information and tailor their studying accordingly. As few distractions as possible. Put the cell phone away. Turn off the television. They may not be able to devote an hour of their time to doing this, but get them to start small and build up their stamina. Fifteen minutes with no distractions and then five to catch up on the social media they missed. Once they are acclimated, get them to try for twenty or thirty minutes with no distractions before rewarding themselves with some time on twitter or snapchat. This will likely be a departure from their norm, but when studying without distractions they are actually saving time and likely learning more in the process. 

How would you tailor a conversation about the illusion of multitasking with students?

How might you approach your students to discuss more effective and efficient study habits?

*I highly recommend Urban Myths About Learning and Education. In particular, pages 96-99 discuss the task-switching.  

1. Bruyckere, P. D., Kirschner, P. A., & Hulshof, C. D. (2015). Urban myths about learning and education. London, UK: Academic Press.

2. https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/28561

7 thoughts on “The Illusion of Multitasking and its Impact on Learning

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  1. My 11 yr old tells me that she can sing to music being played while she does her math homework…..is this possible under this thought?

    1. Highly doubtful…even if the songs are quite familiar to her, it would still require cognitive effort to know when to sing. Obviously, the math would require cognitive attention.

  2. Would you say that listening to any/all types of music while reading or studying would cause a cognitive distraction?

    1. I would say so. However, if the music was instrumental, there would probably be less distraction since there are no words to pull your attention.

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