On Tuesday, CTLT program staff attended a Student Engagement Techniques Faculty Workshop by Elizabeth Barkley along with 20+ ISU faculty members.  One of the comments that repeatedly came up in the workshop was that students nowadays are so distracted by their electronic gadgets and multitasking whenever they can that they are not paying attention in class or when they are doing assignments.  I know this came up in the ISUTeach listserv and CTLT events before, so it’s nothing really new. Although  faculty have suggested a number of ideas to minimize this in class, students still multi-task in their home, dorm rooms and everywhere..  One of the suggestions that came up at my small group table was to share research findings about ineffectiveness of multitasking.  Basically, multi-taskers think they can multitask, but numerous researches show that participants did not complete tasks very well when they were asked to juggle two tasks simultaneously.  You may have heard from elsewhere already, but the results show that the quality of neither tasks are good and that it takes longer for participants to complete the tasks when people worked on two tasks at the same time.

Multitasking was also one of the heavily discussed topics at the conference I attended last month, Learning and Brain Conference.  It was fascinating to learn about the effect of multitasking on learning.  I knew about the ineffectiveness of multitasking before attending the conference, but there are several ideas that were very new to me and I hope to share this with faculty in the near future (watch for workshop or events on this topic in the future!).  In this blog, I’d like to share insight I gained from the most fascinating presentation by Dr. Nass from Stanford University.  He illustrated the conclusion of his study with this short clip.  Watch this and see how you do…

Dr. Nass stated that chronic high multi-taskers (people who habitually multi-task) were likely to spot the gorilla but to fail to count the correct number of pass.  He and his colleagues conducted experiment with several different tasks and the result indicated that heavy multi-taskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant information and slow in task-switching  – which is actually equal to the common notion of “multitasking”  i.e. brain can handle only one task at a time so multi-taskers are usually quickly switching between tasks, instead of doing them simultaneously.  So what does this mean to our students and learning?  When students multi-task habitually, they will become likely to pay attention to irrelevant information and will not be able to pay attention to the things that they are supposed.

Maybe you can run this video with your multi-tasking students and see how they do.  At least, it might serve as a good starting point of conversation about how habitual multi-tasking may harm them. d  Just a side note, I showed this video to my multi-tasking 10-year-old daughter and she counted the correct number of passes and noticed the gorilla – oh, well, I guess my experiment did not help me illustrate my point to her…

4 thoughts on “Fed up with multi-tasking students?

  1. Stephanie Owens says:

    Multitasking seems somewhat like being ambidextrous. I once read that although a person who is ambidextrous can use both hands proficiently, right-hand or left-hand dominate people will use their dominant hand more proficiently than an ambidextrous person can use either.

    I think that sharing research is a wonderful way to demonstrate the ineffectiveness multitasking. Incorporating a “watch this clip and see how you do” demonstration is even better.

    The Illinois State Police, among others, have used this approach with a driving simulator to demonstrate the dangers of texting while driving:


    It’s easy (especially when our pre-frontal cortex is still developing) to think that statistics do not apply to you or me personally, but quite another to go through your motions and have your previous assumptions soundly disproved.

    As for the monkey business video, I counted the correct passes and saw the gorilla, but I completely missed the curtain change and the black shirt player leaving the game. 🙂

  2. IB Clever says:

    Often a person is being praised of being able to perform multitasking, however this is an illusion as the brain does not completely perform two things at once. Well maybe, we might have done it under pressure to do many things at once but we tend to forget some things or our memory of the job completed is too vague.

    I have experienced it myself that if and when I do many things at once, yes I’ve completed the tasks but I tend to forget them easily compared to completion of certain task at a time. Performing one task at a time, concentration is high and inculcation of the process is better so recalling of the job done is easier.

    As for the video, I watched it twice to get all the other changes, I suppose I’m not good with multitasking.

  3. Multitasking is a myth. We are only human with one brain and our mind cannot process too many things at the same time. Neurologically speaking, it has been proven to be impossible. What we are really doing is switching back and forth between two tasks rapidly. To learn more about the effects of multitasking, take my free exercise at http://www.davecrenshaw.com/exercise

  4. Mayuko Nakamura says:

    That’s what exactly the research community is saying/. As in the post, multi-tasking is actually a “task-switching” because the brain can handle only one task at a time. Multi-tasters are just quickly switching between tasks.