[kids-lib] Research on How Multitasking Affects Learning

Jennifer Maurer jennifer.maurer at state.or.us
Wed May 8 16:26:50 PDT 2013

Earlier this week I read a meaty blog posting called "How Does Multitasking Change the Way Kids Learn?" by author and journalist, Annie Murphy Paul. Note that though the title uses the word "kids," several of the referenced studies involved high schoolers or college students.

Here is some information that stood out to me. All bullets are quotes from the article.

  *   Evidence from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience suggests that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention.

  *   Multitasking students understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts.

  *   Texting, emailing, and posting on Facebook and other social media sites are by far the most common digital activities students undertake while learning, according to Rosen. That’s a problem, because these operations are actually quite mentally complex, and they draw on the same mental resources—using language, parsing meaning—demanded by schoolwork.

  *   Per David Meyer, a psychology professor: Under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. It can happen only when the two tasks are both very simple and when they don’t compete with each other for the same mental resources. An example would be folding laundry and listening to the weather report on the radio. That’s fine. But listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook—each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.

  *   Researchers have documented a cascade of negative outcomes that occurs when students multitask while doing schoolwork.
     *   First, the assignment takes longer to complete, because of the time spent on distracting activities and because, upon returning to the assignment, the student has to re-familiarize himself with the material.
     *   Second, the mental fatigue caused by repeatedly dropping and picking up a mental thread leads to more mistakes...
     *   Third, students’ subsequent memory of what they’re working on will be impaired if their attention is divided...
     *   Fourth, some research has suggested that when we’re distracted, our brains actually process and store information in different, less useful ways...

  *   This ability to resist the lure of technology can be consciously cultivated, Rosen maintains. He advises students to take "tech breaks" to satisfy their cravings for electronic communication: After they’ve labored on their schoolwork uninterrupted for 15 minutes, they can allow themselves two minutes to text, check websites, and post to their hearts’ content. Then the devices get turned off for another 15 minutes of academics. Over time, Rosen says, students are able extend their working time to 20, 30, even 45 minutes, as long as they know that an opportunity to get online awaits.

  *   It would be hard to enforce a total ban on media multitasking, but parents can draw a line when it comes to homework and studying—telling their kids, ‘This is a time when you will concentrate on just one thing.’

It would be interesting to see how students in your library respond to this article. Here are some of the responses from teenagers that were left as comments on the blog posting: http://anniemurphypaul.com/2013/05/reaction-to-my-multitasking-article-the-teenagers-speak/.


Jennifer Maurer
School Library Consultant
Oregon State Library
250 Winter St NE
Salem, OR 97301
jennifer.maurer at state.or.us

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