Cell Phones and Attention: Outcomes that affect learning both in the classroom and at home

Written by Dr. Althea Bauernschmidt and Dr. Adam Brown

Cell phones are one of the biggest contributors to multitasking. Those fantastic devices that allow you to connect with the world are excellent at distracting you from the task at hand.

From our previous posts, you’ll already know that multitasking does not allow you to complete multiple tasks simultaneously, instead when you think you are multitasking you are actually switching between tasks. This task switching comes at a cost, including making more errors and increasing reaction time. This cost is amplified if the tasks are complex or unfamiliar (Rubinstein, Meyer, & Evans, 2001).
Cell phones (and really any attention-grabbing media device like laptops or tablets) force multitasking because we’ve trained ourselves to respond to them. It’s hard to ignore an incoming text message or tweet notification. In fact, these notifications harm our attention even if we don’t respond to them (Stothart, Mitchum, Yehnert, 2015). (Next month we’ll be focusing on selective attention and how these devices harm our ability to focus on one task at a time.)

Despite the fact that cell phones lead to multitasking which ultimately impairs learning, the majority of students not only use cell phones in class, but feel that cell phone use in class is acceptable. In a survey of 400 college students over 80% said they regularly use their cellphones in class (Barry & Westfall, 2015). Furthermore, almost 75% of students thought that checking their cell phones during class was acceptable or sometimes acceptable.


One could make the argument that because students have grown up with cell phones they are better able to multitask with them. However, students who grew up in the digital age and who are used to frequent digital media perform no better at instructional multitasking than do those who are naïve  to the digital world (Wood, Zivcakova, Gentile, Archer, De Pasquale, & Nosko, 2011). Even though students are used to cell phones and social media, they are not necessarily better at multitasking with them.

Trying to pay attention and learn? Turn off your cell phone. Better yet, put it in another room.


Barry, M. J. & Westfall, A. (2015). Dial D for Distraction: The making and breaking of cell phone policies in the college classroom. College Teaching63, 62-71.

Rubinstein, J.S., Meyer, D.E., & Evans, J.E. (2001). Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 763-797.

Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., Yehnert, C., (2015). The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41(4), 893-897.

Wood E, Zivcakova, L., Gentile, P., Archer, K., De Pasquale, D., Nosko, A. (2011) Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning. Computers & Education, 58, 365-374.

“Tabless Thursdays” and the cost of Multitasking

Written by Martha Zimmerman

Take a look at these two videos to learn more about the effects of attempting to multitask and a way to try and end multitasking and become more productive.

The first from McGill University Psychology Professor Daniel Levitin. He describes the neurobiological costs of attempting to multitask, and how this leads to mental depletion; “You end up fractioning your attention into little bits and pieces, not really engaging fully in any one thing.”  Levitin also discusses ways in which we can restore our mental resources. This can be as simple as taking a break from your work and coming back to it with some sense of rejuvenation.

Big Think: Multitasking is a Myth and to Attempt It Comes at a Neurobiological Cost

The second is from The Atlantic’s health editor. The second video describes one way to aid in staying on task, and is something we can practice weekly, if not more: “Tabless Thursday.” James Hamblin, MD suggests using only one tab when using any browser to boost productivity. Using only one tab can help increase concentration on the task at hand, instead of switching between tasks, or tabs in this case.

Tabless Thursdays

Multitasking Round Up 2

Written by Soquania Henry

This week we’re continuing the conversation about multitasking. What is multitasking, why does it do more harm than good, and how can you avoid it? Check out the resources below to learn more!

  1. Does Multitasking Kill Productivity?

    Brain GearsLearn ways to be more successful while doing your daily tasks from Next Level Life.

  2. The True Cost of Multitasking

    Busy DeskWhat have you lost lately? Find yourself questioning if you are doing things the right way? Dr. Susan Weinhenk tells us the true cost of multitasking.

  3. The Myth of Multitasking

    Time FaceWhat has history taught us about multitasking? Author Christine Rosen explains to us the myths we have adapted over time.

  4. Technology in the Classroom

    usb-2705872_1280Cell phones and other devices can increase multitasking. Dr. Althea Bauernschmidt discusses how technology affects learning in the classroom in this guest post for www.learningscientists.org.


Make Your Time Count – Tips for Students

Written by Katelynn Brown


Repeatedly throughout the day, we find ourselves engaged in multitasking. We engage in multitasking when we email while eating a meal, when we text while walking, or when we try to watch TV as we are completing homework. Many times when are engaging in these behaviors, we don’t even notice that we are multitasking. In the moment it seems like an effective and simple method of completing multiple tasks as one time. What we do not acknowledge are the effects that these decisions have on our development and the work that you are trying to complete. As individuals and as students this tendency to multitask from one activity to another can have great effects on our ability to stay focused and pay attention for any amount of time. As we become more accustomed to continually switching from one task to another, we become unaccustomed to staying focused on one task. Eventually, we have difficulty focusing on one activity or task for two long because we have become so accustomed to moving between multiple activities. This tendency to lack the ability to focus can be detrimental to students. It is important that as students we are cognizant of the decisions that we are making and that we are self-aware of the best decisions to make both inside and outside of the classroom. One specific area where students to need to be conscious is when studying. When studying, students need to think about both the good and bad habits that they might have while studying and how those might affect the studying process that they experience.

Bad Study Habits 

1. Turning to distractions

Many times students turn to distractions while studying. These distractions can include using a cell phone, surfing the internet, listening to music, or watching TV while studying. Each of these distractors affects the student’s ability to concentrate on what they are attempting to learn. While studying, students should be disconnected from social media. Students should turn off notifications and limit the amount of distractions that are present. This includes turning off the TV and limiting time spent surfing the internet. These modification aid students in staying focus and engaged in studying.


2. Waiting till the last minute

We have each procrastinated at some point but procrastination does not help you in the end. Procrastination effects the amount of time that you have to devote to studying and does not help you to demonstrate your full ability in the end. When we procrastinate we limit our abilities and are not able to demonstrate all of our knowledge. Rather than procrastinating, students should organize time appropriately, create a schedule to improve time management, and set aside an appropriate amount of time to study content material.

3. Not providing yourself enough time

When studying for an exam students need to provide themselves with a sufficient amount of time to review the required information. Students need to provide themselves with sufficient time to organize their materials, provide their full attention to the material, and review. Students need to ensure that set aside an appropriate amount of time that allows them to study all of the required information but to also take a break to relax and recharge before an exam. Students should plan study time and create an effective study schedule to help stay organized when preparing for an exam.

4. Lack of organization

In the classroom, there are going to be students who have difficulty with staying organized. It is important, especially when studying, the students are organized and have all of the materials that they need. In the classroom, teachers can help by making sure that students have their assignments and calendars in working order and ensuring that students have all of the materials they need in order to effectively study. Students can make a checklist and set a schedule to help them stay organized. By ensuring that students have all of the materials that they require it will aid students when it comes time to study to stay organized.

Busy Desk

Good Study Habits: Limit Multitasking When Studying

When studying there are many distractors that can limit a student’s ability to focus. Many times these distractions can cause students to multitask rather than focusing on the single task of studying. Students need to determine different methods that they can use to help limit the urge to multitask. Here are some methods that students can use to limit the occurrence of multitasking:

1. Make a schedule to stay on track

Making a schedule can help you stay focused and on task with the studying that is being completed. By creating a schedule you can pace your progress and ensure that you have time to cover all of the material required. When creating your schedule set goals for yourself. By setting goals for yourself, you are able to better stay on track and pace the progress that you are making.




2. Silence your phone and turn off social media, messaging, and email

As they study, students should turn off their phones to limit the tendency to become distracted. Students can limit the possibility of multitasking by turning off phones and keep the distraction at a distance. Students can set goals for themselves and once the goal is achieve they can reward themselves with the use of the cell phone. Take a step back from your social media. By taking away the distraction of social media, students are better able to focus on the material that they are studying. By limiting distractions students are less likely to lose their train of thought while studying and are able to focus creating an effective study environment.

3. Set a timer for regular breaks

While studying, students should schedule regular breaks in order to stay focused. While studying students need to make sure that they schedule study breaks to help them refocus and recharge. Study breaks give students the chance to rest and process all of the information that they are studying. It is important that students schedule regular breaks into their study schedule to limit the need to multitask and to remain focused.

Time Face

4. Limit web browsing

When studying students should limit the amount of time that they spend surfing the internet. Web browsing can become a major distraction while studying, for students. Students should limit their web browsing to content specific information in order to limit the distractions that might occur.

5. Keep a healthy snack and water nearby

When studying it is important that students keep snacks and water close by. By ensuring that these essentials are close by, students are able to stay energized while reducing temptation to leave the study area. By having snacks and water close by, students are able to stay focused on the study material and to remain energized to stay on task.


Garcia, L. (2013). 10 bad study habits and how to fix them. Retrieved from https://www.babble.com/kid/10-bad-study-habits-and-how-to-fix-them/

Loveless, B. (2017). 10 habits of highly effective students. Retrieved from https://www.educationcorner.com/habits-of-successful-students.html

UoPeople Outreach. (2017, March 19). 5 bad study habits to drop and 4 ones to keep. Retrieved from https://www.uopeople.edu/blog/5-bad-study-habits-drop-4-good-ones-keep/

Willis, J. (2016, October 25). Conquering the multitasking brain drain. Retrieved from Edutopia website: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/conquering-the-multitasking-brain-drain-judy-willis


Negative Effects of Cell Phone Use on Attention and Memory

With increasing use of cell phones, society has grown attached to these mobile devices and our attention and memory have been strongly affected. In a recent article, Galván, Vessal, and Golly (2013) examine the effects of one-sided and two-sided conversations on attention and memory of bystanders.

Cell Phone Distraction

In this experiment, researchers led participants to believe that the study’s purpose was to test their ability to complete an anagram, a task that requires the unscrambling of letters to complete a word. Participants were in fact given anagrams, however this was not the direct purpose of the study. During the anagram task, participants either overheard a one-sided conversation where a confederate talked on the phone, a one-sided conversation where a confederate talked on the phone but there was also a silent confederate in the room ignoring the conversation, or a two-sided conversation between two confederates. A confederate is an individual who is in on the study, but will act as a random participant. The conversations presented were scripted and covered three different topics.

After the conversation ended, participants were given a recognition test. This included words from the conversation, related words that were from the same category as the actual words used but weren’t part of the conversation, and other words of varying relatedness to the conversation. Additionally, participants were given a distractibility scale, which was a questionnaire about how distractive participants thought the conversations were.

For the experiment, the participants were assigned one of the three conditions (a one-sided conversation on the phone, a one-sided conversation on the phone with another confederate in the room, or a two-sided conversation between confederates). Once the participant sat down at their desk, they were given the anagram task. The researcher would pretend that the other copies of the anagram tasks were bad, so they had to leave the room to make more copies for the confederate in the room. Once the participant began completing the anagram tasks, the confederate would either answer a phone call or begin conversing with the other confederate, depending on the assigned condition. Once the experimenter got back to the room, they gave the participant the recognition memory test and the distractibility scale.

Individuals that received the treatment where they heard a one-sided conversation but there was a silent confederate in the room were grouped together with those that just heard the one-sided conversation. Then, there was the second group of participants who heard the two-sided conversation. Results from the distractibility scale showed that the participants in the group that heard the one-sided conversation found it to be more noticeable, distracting, found the content and volume was more annoying, and were more surprised that the conversation took place than the group who heard the two-sided conversation. Individuals who heard the one-sided conversation also had more accurate scores on the recognition task and were more confident in their responses to the words in the conversations. This goes to show that individuals are more distracted by and pay more attention to one-sided conversations on a cell phone, rather than two-sided conversations.

This issue of cell phones and attention is one that is very current and applicable, as the increasing use of cell phones have affected everyday tasks that require our attention. This fairly new development in technology brings us many benefits, such as immediate communication and portable access to the Internet. However the addicting nature of attachment to the device has its negative effects.

Cell Phone in Class.png

Within the classroom especially, the existence of cell phones has presented a huge problem. Students, especially at the college level, have access to their cell phones during class time on a regular basis. Further research has found that simply having a cell phone out on a student’s desk can be distracting, in addition to texting or surfing the web. Thus, it doesn’t have to be as blatant and straightforward as a verbal conversation that can be distracting towards others; the simple presence of the device can affect attention and memory as well.

It is important to become educated on these issues, particularly for students or educators. As learning in a classroom environment requires high levels of attention, eliminating causes of distraction will be beneficial for the students’ success. Using this research-based evidence, educators can make informed decisions regarding their classroom protocol, and have cell phone policies to eliminate their use during class time instruction.


Galvan, V. V., Vessal, R. S., & Golley, M. T. (2013). The effects of cell phone conversations on the attention and memory of bystanders. PLoS ONE, 8(3).


Abigail Koetting


The Distraction of Receiving a Cell Phone Notification


At this point, most people have heard about the danger of using cell phones during tasks like driving and even walking. The distraction caused by using a cell phone to be on social media or to text while doing work or studying is also obvious. This is because while people believe that they are multitasking while using their phone while studying, this is not the case at all. The strict definition of the term multitasking is that multiple activities are being performed simultaneously without a break in either task, such as singing while playing the guitar, and this is relatively uncommon to be able to do (David, Kim, Brickman, Ran, & Curtis, 2015). More likely is that people are task switching, which is when there is a temporary disengagement in one activity to perform the other, which is what we are doing when we text and drive, or check our phone while studying (David et. al, 2017). The cost in performance due to task switching has been shown repeatedly, in all types of activities, which is why driving becomes more dangerous and studying becomes more difficult.

However, the hindrance of a cell phone is not limited to the cost of task switching when one is using it. The sound of somebody else’s cell phone ringing can decrease performance, such as decreased attention and note-taking to the material during a lecture (End, Worthman, Mathews, & Wetterau, 2010). Even just the presence of a cell phone, whether it’s yours or somebody else’s, leads to worse performance on tasks that require attention, especially complex and difficult tasks (Thornton, Faires, Robbins, & Rollins, 2014).

The amount of attention that cell phones take up in our minds, even when we are not necessarily using them, is obvious. This is why psychologists at Florida State University wanted to test the attentional cost of receiving a notification. All of the public statements say to wait to respond when you receive a text or a call while driving. But it’s possible that even though you are not using your phone, that receiving a text and waiting to answer to it also has a cost. This may be because you are using your prospective memory: the memory that you use to remember to do something in the future, like respond to somebody’s text message. The attentional required in trying to remember to do something in the future could take away from the task at hand. Also, receiving a notification might lead to thoughts that are unrelated to the task being performed, like what the message may contain and who it is from, and these thoughts unrelated to the task can distract from the task itself (Stothart, Mitchum, & Yehnert, 2015).

An experiment performed at Florida State University in 2015 showed that this was true: when you receive a notification, even without looking at it or responding to it, it takes away some of your attention. The experiment that they performed used the SART, or the Sustained Attention to Response Task to measure attention. This task requires a great deal of attention and focus, as a number flashes on the screen, and a response is required quickly. For all numbers except three, the subject presses the space bar, and if the number is three, the subject does not press anything (Stothart, Mitchum, & Yehnert, 2015).



The participants all performed a block of the SART where they did not receive any notifications, and then during the second block, one condition received text messages, another received phone calls, and the third did not receive notifications again. The subjects did not know that their phones had anything to do with the study, so they were not told not to look at them or to turn them on. This also meant that they did not know that the researchers were going to be texting or calling them, so the subjects believed that the notification was personally relevant to them, which increased the chance of the subject to let their mind wander about who the notification was from, and what it was about (Stothart, Mitchum, & Yehnert, 2015).

There are two measurements of the SART that have been shown to be related to distraction, or a wandering mind during the task. The first is the measure of commission errors, which is when the space bar was pressed when it was not supposed to because the number 3 was on the screen. The second way to measure distraction is by observing that the response times are so quick, that it is clear the subject is not actually looking at the number on the screen, but is just pressing the space bar because that is likely the correct response. Both of these measurements were higher in the blocks where the participants received text messages and phone calls, compared to the first block, where the participants did not receive any notifications (Stothart, Mitchum, & Yehnert, 2015).

These results make it clear that receiving a notification does lead to distraction on a task that requires constant attention like the SART. And while it may seem that a notification is distracting because one has to take the time away from the task to look at the phone, the researchers purposely excluded the data of any subject that looked at their phone when they received a notification. And it was not just the sound of the phone ringing that distracted subjects, as the probability of committing an error was the same for the trials when the phone was not ringing as when it was in the phone call condition. Therefore, in this case, the participants were not distracted by looking at their phone, or distracted by the noise of a notification, but from the thoughts that come from hearing a notification and the mind wandering that occurs after you receive a notification (Stothart, Mitchum, & Yehnert, 2015).

This experiment has important implications for what was previously believed about the presence of cell phones during tasks that require focus. For example, it’s been believed that as long as you are not using your phone while you’re driving or studying, that it’s okay to have it near you. However, this study showed that even knowing that you have a notification caused a decrease in performance similar to that of texting while driving (Stothart, Mitchum, & Yehnert). This means that when one is driving, studying, or trying to pay attention in lecture, your phone should be away and on silent. If you are in class, and your phone is in your pocket, even just a small buzz can lead to a distraction that can distract from lecture. It is clear that the scope of how distracting a cell phone can be goes well beyond just having to switch tasks, its presence and noise can be much more detrimental than we realize.


David, P., Kim, J., Brickman, J. S., Ran, W., & Curtis, C. M. (2015). Mobile phone distraction while studying. New Media and Society, 17(10). 1661-1679.

End, C.M., Worthman, S., Mathews, M., & Wetterau, K. (2010). Costly cell phones: The impact of cell phone rings on academic performance. Teaching of Psychology, 37, 55-57.

Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., & Yehnert, C. (2015). The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41(4), 893-897.

Thornton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., & Rollins, E. (2014). The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting: Implications for attention and task performance. Social Psychology45(6), 479-488.


Anna Aylward

Multitasking Roundup

This month we have been exploring the topic of multitasking. This roundup features articles from across the web about multitasking.

Multitasking on the Job from TalentSmart


Does multitasking affect your job performance? Dr. Travis Bradberry discusses this, as well as the potential long-term effects of multitasking.


Multitasking and Productivity from NPR


Tempted to quickly check your email during a meeting or respond to a text while reading an article? Multitasking through the use of digital media is explained from a first-person perspective here.


Risks of Multitasking from Psychology Today


Do you think you are playing it “safe” by multitasking? Dr. Guy Winch lists 10 risks that make this behavior more dangerous than you might think.


Your Brain on Multitasking from CNN


What’s going on in your brain when you are multitasking (or, more appropriately, trying to multitask)? A detailed description is provided here by Dr. Sanjay Gupta.



Author: Michelle Onofrio

Multitasking in the Classroom

Why Avoid Multitasking?

In our everyday lives we are constantly bombarded with information, activities, and engagements that we can be involved in. For a majority of the day, we are each participating in multitasking in one form or another. Many times we are engaging in multitasking behaviors and do not even notice the distractions that are affecting us throughout the day. For students especially being involved in these distractors can impact their performance both inside and outside of the classroom. As educators, we must incorporate different methods to assist students with limiting the amount of multitasking they are involved in to ensure their success in the classroom.

Why Shouldn’t Students Multitask?


All around students are constantly surrounded by devices and platforms that can cause distractions. Social media, videos, video games, and other similar distractions are all readily present to students and can cause distractions while attempting to complete assignments. Many times students believe that they are able to multitask and complete multiple tasks successfully at once. But this is not the case! The brain is designed to limit conscious focus to one thing at any particular time. When we attempt to multitask and attempting to do multiple things at one time; rather than multitasking the brain is actually shifting its processing from one network to another. Each time that you shift from one task to another, you are wasting time, mental effort, and brain fuel. The use of multitasking can affect the effectiveness and productivity of students both inside and outside of the classroom. The consequences of task switching can include less work being completed, more time is required to complete assignments, and less information is retained. It is important that teachers emphasize single tasking rather than multitasking. Teachers should also provide students with methods to limit multitasking.

Limit Multitasking in the Classroom:

While in the classroom, teachers want students to be hard at work, courteous, and well-behaved. From time to time, teachers might find that students are distracted while in the classroom or multitasking. These distractions might include using cell phones or interruptive behaviors that might be demonstrated during class time. There are multiple techniques and methods that teachers can use to help students avoid multitasking and distractions and stay focused on the lesson.

Establish standards and expectations for student behavior and learning

As a teacher, it is important that you first establish a relationship with your students. Along with developing a relationship with your students, it is important that teachers are able to establish rules and expectations for the students. While in the classroom, students need to understand the rules that are in the place and the expectations that the teachers has for the students. Ensure that in the classroom, expectations and rules are made aware to the students. With this knowledge, students understand what the teachers expects to see from students. This should aid teachers in explaining to students how important attention is during lessons, in limiting distractions and inattention that might occur, and in diminishing the tendency of students to multitask.

Protect and Leverage Time

While teaching a lesson, teachers need to appropriately time and pace lessons in order to keep student engaged and interested. Teachers need to ensure that when presenting content, there is sufficient time for instruction and for students to practice the instructional methods. By providing students with sufficiently paced instruction and allowing student ample time to practice the concept present in instruction, teachers can increase student academic performance. Effective time planning can prevent the presence of ideal time thus limiting the possibility of student multitasking or distraction. By minimizing lost and idol time, teachers can attempt to keep students fully engaged in the lesson.

 Anticipate student behaviors

When teachers plan their lessons, it is important to keep in mind student interests, behaviors, and paths of attention that are required to acquire the content information. Teachers need to focus on what they are teaching and how students will be able to demonstrate their learning. In the lesson, teachers should include open ended questions that challenge student thinking. This should allow students to remain engaged in the lesson and the material being presented. In the lesson, teachers should utilize multiple methods of representation to provide the information to students. This method will allow the teachers to effectively meet the needs of multiple students in the classroom. Finally, teachers should also provide the students with a variety of opportunities to demonstrate the knowledge that they have acquired. By thinking about the behaviors of the students in the classroom prior to teaching the lesson, teachers are able to ensure that they have worked to meet the needs of each student. This should ensure that the students remain involved in the lesson, limit the amount of possible distractions, and diminish the occurrence of multitasking by the students in the classroom.

Differentiate instruction to keep students engaged. 

Schoolchildren bored in a classroom, during lesson.

Along with understanding student behaviors during the lessons, teachers also need to differentiate instruction in order to engage and challenge students with the material. When differentiating instruction, teachers can differentiate the content, process, or products in order to avoid multitasking or distractions during the lesson. When differentiating content teachers can use reading material at varying readability levels, use different vocabulary and spelling lists based on the level of the student, present ideas through different means, and use different methods of grouping students such as in pairs, small groups, or individually.When determining the process there are multiple methods and activities that can be used to assist in differentiating. Teachers can use tiered activities by using different levels of support, challenge, or complexity. Teachers can develop personal agendas to be completed either during individual study time or while in centers in the classroom. Teachers can provide manipulatives or hands on supports, and can use varying lengths of time depending on student need to complete the assigned material.

When considering the product that students are expected to present, teachers can differentiate the outcome based on the needs of the students. In the classroom, teachers can give students options of how to express the required learning. Teachers can use rubrics to assess and extend student learning. Teachers can vary the method of completing the product from individual to small groups. In each of these sections- content, process, and product- teachers are able to differentiate the material to ensure that students remained engaged and active in the learning experience. By gearing the planning, instruction, and product to the needs of the students can avoid the habit of multitasking. By providing planned and differentiated instruction to their individual needs, the teacher can attempt to prevent students from multitasking by challenging their thinking and providing support where necessary.

A cute African American schoolboy thinking while looking away

Provide students with brain breaks throughout the day

As teachers, there is a lot of material that needs to be covered and instruction that needs to be provided throughout the school day. Though there is a lot that must be taught, teachers cannot forget to provide students with opportunities to relax, recharge, and reenergize during instruction. At different points throughout the day, teachers should allow students to take breaks to reenergize and refocus. These breaks can include simple tasks such as allowing students to stretch or walk around the classroom. These break can also include using websites such as GoNoodle to allow students to dance and sing along to videos. Any of these options would allow students to reenergize and refocus before presenting more information. By providing students with brain breaks, students are less likely to become distracted or to multitask during instruction.


Edutopia. (2016). Conquering the multitasking brain drain [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/ search?biw=1777&bih=882&tbm=isch&sa=1&ei=_3rzWevzEcjLjwTh3rDYCg&q=multitasking+edutopia&oq=multitasking+edutopia&gs_l=psy-ab.3…6008.8613.0.8812.….0…1.1.64.psyab..0.8.721…0j0i67k1j0i24k1j0i10i24k1j0i8i30 k1.0.r-C4sP0kJBQ#imgrc=qNjtCOeN1JF3zM

Freepik. (2016). Smiling students paying attention in class. Retrieved from: https://www.freepik.com/free-photo/smiling-students-paying-attention-in-class_866544.htm

Johnson, B. (2016, September 2). The 5 priorities of classroom management. Retrieved from Edutopia website: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/5-priorities-classroom-management-ben-johnson

Tomlinson, C. A. (n.d.). What is differentiated instruction. Retrieved from


Willis, J. (2016, October 25). Conquering the multitasking brain drain. Retrieved from

Edutopia website: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/conquering-the-multitasking-




Katelynn Brown

The Myth of Multitasking


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.

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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:

  1. Stop the current task,
  2. Search for information about the new task,
  3. Find the new task parameters, and
  4. 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.


Althea Bauernschmidt



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