Students, Stop Multi-Tasking: You're Only Fooling Yourselves

Research is now confirming what a lot of us have known for a long time: flitting back and forth between a lecture and MSN or tweets or Facebook or e-mail or YouTube or whatever is not smart. You may think that you’re being so very productive and you might leave the lecture hall buzzing with a sense of exertion, but you’ve only wasted a lot of energy switching among two or three activities that you can do much better if you take them one at a time.

Sometimes people congratulate themselves that they’re working “in parallel” rather than “serially,” as if they have two brains/processors going, but no one does have two brains. Instead, our sense of “productivity” is simply the sense of expending energy from jumping back and forth among activities, energy that is better used actually doing something.

We’re maxing out our RAM, so to speak, trying to take lecture notes while staving off boredom by playing a computer game or checking sports scores. Using up all one’s concentration in this way, however, means that one can only receive the lecture and, at best, record it faithfully. What one has no mental capacity to do in such situations is to go beyond mere receptivity to engage in two other crucial activities: criticism and creation.

You simply cannot critique what you’re hearing if all you’re doing it “getting it down,” and you certainly can’t innovate, can’t consider alternatives, if you’re maxed out. There has to be mental space for the mind to wander, in fact, but not in just any silly, dilatory direction: in intelligent directions of “What if…” and “On the other hand…” and “That reminds me of…” and the like.

So quite apart from the discourtesy of your screen flashing back and forth among various windows, doubtless distracting students behind or beside you, you’ll simply do better if you focus your attention on the task at hand.

Don’t kid yourselves, my friends: working harder trying to do three tasks at once is not working smarter. Quite the contrary.

0 Responses to “Students, Stop Multi-Tasking: You're Only Fooling Yourselves”

  1. Juan Carlos Herrera

    Now I’ve got to figure out how to stop multitasking inside my head, I tend to play games in there too 🙂 Any suggestions?

  2. Beth

    I’ll confess, I’ve used class time (even class time at Regent!) to multitask. I am not proud of this, and I agree that under such conditions, class time degenerates into “getting it down.” I will also say that I have had profs who didn’t expect much more than “getting it down,” and whose classes weren’t structured to encourage creativity or invite criticism. But rather than wrongfully pegging my proclivity to multitask entirely on the not-so-inspiring teaching of certain profs, I will say this… here’s to the excellent profs whose creative and interactive teaching made it very difficult for my focus to stray.

  3. David Strunk

    That’s why Doug Groothuis no longer allows laptops in his courses at Denver Seminary. He used to implicitly trust students- students who should care most and be the cream of the crop- but alas he no longer does after years of bad experiences. The class discussions and receptivity was much higher when I was there and he didn’t allow laptops.

    The more technology, Groothuis says, the less knowledge. Neil Postman would be so proud.

    • John Stackhouse

      While Professor Groothuis might well be right in this extreme policy, I’ll quibble in that I don’t think Neil would be proud: He wasn’t against technology. He warned us instead to be as aware as possible about what each new technology gives and takes away, what it makes possible and what it also makes impossible/difficult/unlikely/invisible.

      Some people (such as I) type faster and more clearly than we write. Laptops help us take notes much better than pen and paper. So I have not opted for that drastic measure in my classes . . . yet!

      • Doug Groothuis

        The policy is not extreme, Professor. I did it after much experience and many experiments with other means to control the techno-diversions.

        Moreover, technologies increase the availability of information, that doesn’t mean it become knowledge (justified true belief). So, in that sense info-overload can decrease knowledge, which often requires singular focus and sustained ratiocination.

        Yes, since we type faster than we write, we may lose some verbatim quotes (as happened in my class this week when I said something new and interesting that no one could remember word for word), but the overall effect of laptops is to undermine educative community. I have an article on this coming out in The Teaching Professor.

        I know full-well that Postman was not anti-technology. Neither am I. I have three blogs, a web page, use email, and so on. However, I try to exegete the technologies for their strengths and weaknesses.

        • John Stackhouse

          Thanks for chiming in. Just to be clear, I meant “extreme” in the strict sense: “No laptops” seems to be at one end of a continuum. I did not mean “extremist” or “bizarre” or “indefensible,” since I was confident (as your comment shows) that you had good reason for what you did. So no offense meant.

          My son has a learning disability called dysgraphia such that he can handwrite only very slowly. Using a laptop, as he has since he was in Grade 8, has been a great blessing to him in taking notes. I wonder if other people, without that learning disability, do better with laptops. I do, too, in most meetings I attend, so I bring it and use it.

          So I’ll have to differ with you on this point (as on one or two others!): We agree on the seriousness of the problem, but we’ll have to disagree on whether your technological solution is the best response to it.

  4. Gordon

    Some of us with various degrees of ADHD are only capable of concentrating on learning while multitasking! If I were forced to try to concentrate solely on a lecture without doing anything else, I wouldn’t pick up any of it.

  5. Gordon

    BTW, I grew up in the wilds of Africa without TV, radio, or other media, so my mild ADHD is not a product of any of those…

    • John Stackhouse

      Fair enough, Gordon. I don’t know enough about ADHD to comment further, but I know Andrea will smack you if you’re telling an untruth, so I’m content to believe what you say at face value!

  6. Glenn Runnalls

    Besides from the relative efficiency or need for multi-tasking, there is the consequent condition that Gergen called “multiphrenia” that is even more troubling for the academic.

  7. Travis

    Wow! Very interesting. This is the best blog of yours I have ever read while sitting in your class…jk?

  8. J. Barrett Lee

    Multitasking is not the only thing keeping students from critically engaging with the material. Intellectual consumerism and entitlement must be eliminated as well.

    Ever since my generation started school in the eighties, the cult of self-esteem has been telling pupils that they are entitled to an education. Moreover, the prevalence of what McLuhan called ‘hot media’ in our society has effectively shut down our ability to assess incoming data on-the-spot.

    I like to remind my students that their tuition does not buy them an education, but an opportunity. Along with Freire, I view education as a relational process, which involves a dynamic give & take. Information is not simply downloaded from teacher to student. The student is given a canvas and a brush and told to paint. The teacher is there to guide the process.

  9. Doug Groothuis

    If a laptop can compensate for a learning disability, then I deem that fine. I say so in my article in The Teaching Professor. But laptops can be learning disabilities when used irresponsibily.

    • Glenn Runnalls

      Using McLuhan’s 4 Laws we should not be surprised that laptops and other such devices are changing the educational envrionment and that some of those changes look like disabilities.

      We should lament what is passing (the Gutenburg Galaxy) even as we learn to live within this new space (the Screen Age).



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