This month we will be exploring the topic of multitasking – and how to avoid it. This first blog on multitasking is an overview of what multitasking is and the research behind it. Other blogs in this series will highlight activities that you can use in the classroom, other resources, and some research highlights.
The Myth of Multitasking
Listening to the radio while driving to work. Watching TV while folding laundry. Taking notes during a lecture. These are all examples of situations when people think they are multitasking, or doing several tasks at once. What’s actually happening, however, is that you are rapidly switching your attention between several different tasks (Rodgers & Monsell, 1995). You aren’t doing multiple things at once; you’re doing multiple things in quick succession, requiring you to switch your attention each time. And there’s a cost each time.
The Cost of Switching Attention
When you switch your attention between tasks it takes time and effort. Each time you switch to a new task your brain has to:
- Stop the current task,
- Search for information about the new task,
- Find the new task parameters, and
- Engage in the new task.
Our brains can go these steps so quickly and efficiently that we barely notice the time and effort it takes to shift our attention. The more often we do it however, the more mistakes we make (Monsell, 2003). Not only do we tend to make mistakes when we switch between tasks, the more complex the tasks are, the bigger the mistakes (Rubinstein, Myer, & Evans, 2001). For example, folding laundry while watching TV are two simple tasks. While you switch between watching or listening a show and folding laundry you may make some small mistakes, but overall you can probably do both without noticing a difference. But let’s say that instead of doing laundry you’re writing a paper while watching your favorite TV show. Writing a paper is a little more complex than folding laundry. When you shift your attention from the TV show to the paper you have to stop focusing on the characters on screen, search for information about the new task (“What was I about to say here?”), find the new task parameters (“Oh, right, I was going to give another example…”), and engage in the new task. This takes time and effort each time. Not only will you make mistakes on your paper while switching your attention back and forth, you probably won’t even notice that you made the mistakes. Furthermore, it will take you longer to write the paper than if you had written it without the show on in the background.
“Can You Get Better at Multitasking?” And “Aren’t some people better at Multitasking?”
The short answer to both of these questions is: Yes. The long answer is: But why would you want to? Your ability to do what we perceive as multitasking (remember that you aren’t actually doing multiple things at once, it just feels that way since our brains can switch attention so quickly and efficiently) depends on how easy or hard the tasks are that you’re doing, your experience with those tasks, and your cognitive processing ability.
The cost of switching your attention is less when the tasks you’re working on are easier. You can have more experience with a complex task that makes it easier. Driving is good example of this. When you first learned how to drive a car it was much more difficult to remember where to put your hands on the wheel, when to push the gas and when to push the break, when to put on your turn signal, and when to look in your review mirror. Some experienced drivers still have trouble remembering to use their turn signal. Driving is complicated. But with practice all of these complex behaviors became automatic. Driving becomes easier because of your experience with it, making it easier to drive and listen to music or talk to your passenger about the trip you’re taking. The cost of switching your attention between checking your mirrors, easing off the gas, and reading a street sign is much lower once you have become practiced at it.
Are some fortunate people just better at task switching? Definitely. Do they still make mistakes and take longer to do tasks? Yes. Even if you were one of the lucky people who are able to hold several pieces of information in mind and switch almost effortlessly between tasks, you would still benefit from doing one task at a time. One of the reasons people try to multitask is because they think it makes them more productive. However, as we’ve seen, multitasking leads to more mistakes and a longer time to complete tasks. It feels like you’re being more productive for two reasons. First, you don’t always notice the mistakes you make. These mistakes could range from simple typos, uneven folding, or not seeing another car in an intersection. Second, you feel accomplished after multitasking. The association of a good feeling with doing an otherwise undesirable task, makes it more likely that you’ll continue to multitask in the future (Wang & Tchernev, 2012).
Multitasking in the Classroom
There are several ways that multitasking happens in the classroom, but here I want to talk about just two. The first way is through media multitasking. With cell phones, laptops, and tablets it is becoming easier than ever before for students to multitask during class. When students use multimedia during lecture their learning is worse than students who take notes using traditional pen and paper (Wood, Zivakova, Gentile, Archer, De Pasquale, & Nosko, 2011). Despite the fact that most students have grown up using these technologies, research shows that they are no better at media multitasking than those who are less technologically inclined (Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009). We will be diving deeper into media multitasking, specifically cell phones in the classroom, in a later post.
Another culprit of multitasking in classroom is the standard lecture. In a typical lecture the teacher puts up slide and explains it while the class takes notes. In order to stay on top of this lecture the student has to read the slide, listen to the teacher, and write down the information in their own words. That’s at least 3 tasks that the student has to attempt to multitask. Having to shift their attention between the slide, the teacher, and their notes leads to inattention, errors, and impaired learning. In one experiment Loh, Tan, & Lim (2016) compared students who were undistracted (and only doing one task), distracted students, and students who were multitasking – listening and reading a set of information similar to a typical lecture presentation. At test the undistracted students got 93% correct, the distracted students got 89% correct, and the multitasking students averaged around 74% correct.
A simple fix for multitasking during a lecture is to pause to allow your students to take notes either before or after presenting the information on the screen. You should also be mindful of how much text is on the slides. Less text means less time reading while you are talking (i.e. multitasking). However, if you need to present a lot of text, maybe a famous quote or an interesting example that you will be exploring in the lecture, then allow time for the students to read the full text before talking about it.
Loh, K. K., Tan, B. Z. H., & Lim, S. W. H. (2016). Media multitasking predicts video-recorded lecture performance through mind wandering tendencies. Computers in Human Behavior, 63, 943 – 947.
Monsell, S. (2003). Task switching. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(3), 134-140.
Ophire, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive Control in media multitaskers. PNAS, 106 (37), 12283-12287.
Rodgers, R.D., & Monsell, S. (1995). Costs of predictable switch between simple cognitive tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 124 (2), 207-231.
Rubenstein, J. S., Myer, D. E., & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Human Performance, 27(4), 763-797.
Wang, Z, & Tchernev, J. M. (2012). The “myth” of media multitasking: reciprocal dynamics of media multitasking, personal needs, and gratifications. Journal of Communication, 62, 493 – 513.
Wood, Zivakova, Gentile, Archer, De Pasquale, & Nosko. (2011). Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning. Computers & Education, 58, 365-374.