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The Case Against Multitasking

In spite of overwhelming evidence that proves doing more than one complex task is detrimental for student learning, I continue to hear anecdotal evidence perpetuating the myth of multitasking. I have had a few students who tried to convince me that they belong to the tiny minority of supertaskers and that my ban on using cell phones and laptops in lecture classes is archaic. And recently, even some university administrators eager to understand and align with the millennial generation are joining forces to spread the myth of multitasking.

Many believe that with ubiquitous digital technologies, our brains are currently adjusting, if not evolving, to multitask. However, when asked to show any evidence-based research to back up their claims, they get defensive. If I ask the same individuals if they would text and drive, they claim that it is not the same thing as listening to a classroom lecture and doing their homework. Yes, the detrimental consequences of multitasking while learning are not as immediate as the consequences of texting while driving, but they do exist. If you are drinking more than usual every day, you may not feel the consequences right away, but after a while, your liver will complain and its damaging influence on your personal and professional life will come forth.

Multitasking rations and divides our attention, makes us unable to differentiate between relevant and irrelevant items in an overloaded information world, and weakens our thinking skills. According to David Meyer at the University of Michigan, in some experiments, lower-order thinking skills have been found not to suffer, but when subjects were asked questions on higher-order thinking or asked to apply what they have learned to other contexts, multitasking students did not do as well. Also, newly learned knowledge and skills get coded differently in the brain if acquired while multitasking, and that may adversely affect their use and recall even in a non-multitasking activity such as an in-class test.

Multitasking in the classroom is more troublesome because students are being introduced to the topic for the first time in their life. As novices, students must pay full attention, as working memory is limited. Using part of the working memory for comprehending an unrelated task such as sending a text message or replying to a Facebook status update can overtax the limited working memory.

And let's not confuse multitasking with using several related sources to complete a specific complex task in the classroom, at work, or at home. A student interpreting and writing a report on a laboratory experiment may be simultaneously referring to a textbook, talking to his or her group partners, and looking for relevant information on the Internet. This type of activity should be encouraged, as our brain also is well served when we find patterns, and integrate related information.

I believe that the ability to focus soon will be one of the primary traits employers look for in a college graduate. Bad habits also die hard, and it is our responsibility as educators to steer our students on the right path. If we discourage complex multitasking in the confines of a classroom lecture, we are taking a small step towards nurturing not only a focused citizenry but an emotionally intelligent one, too.

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