by Cora M. Dzubak, Ph.D. – Nittany Success Center
The short answer to the title question is “not at the same time”. Multitasking is often assumed to increase our productivity but it definitely depends on the activities. Of most importance to students is the impact of multitasking on the cognitive processes used while learning. Is multitasking actually detrimental to learning? Keep this thought in mind as you read further: To perform several activities quickly in the same span of time is not the same as trying to learn and store information. It is during activities that require concentration and active thinking that multitasking becomes especially problematic.
Types of Multitasking
Multitasking behaviors need to be understood in the context of their purpose and goals. For example, if a student is using a computer to enter data while listening to music, then these two activities can be done simultaneously. This is known as “dual tasking.” Whenever we are engaged in any two tasks at precisely the same time, then simultaneous processing, or dual tasking, is taking place.
However, very often it is sequential processing that occupies our time. For example, a student might be using a computer to write an essay, stops to send a text message, checks Facebook, returns to the essay for five minutes, then stops typing to read the return text message, etc. Delbridge (2001) referred to this type of switching among sequential tasks as “attention switching” because to effectively change tasks requires a change of attention and focus. Changing attention does allow us to switch among activities, but different parts of the brain are involved in the actual performance of each task.
It has been clinically demonstrated (Delbridge, 2001) that task and attention switching during sequential processing can indeed result in effectively accomplishing multiple goals in the same general time period. However, researchers have found that focusing on just one task involves fewer errors and requires less time to accomplish than trying to engage in multiple tasks.
Information that is intended to be remembered requires a deeper level of sustained attention to process than information that does not need to be stored in memory. Sequential and simultaneous processing both interfere with our ability to sustain attention unless one of the tasks is very passive or requires little or no thought, such as listening to background music. It is the level of processing during an activity that is most significant to our ability to store information. The more cognitively difficult a task, such as learning complex information, then the greater degree of attention it requires.
Sustained thought is impaired when one’s attention is partial or fractured. Stone (2007) coined the term “continuous partial attention” and distinguished it from multitasking. She wrote that multitasking is driven by a desire to be more productive whereas “continuous partial attention” means, literally, to pay partial attention – continuously. It has little to do with being productive or efficient and more to do with being neurologically stimulated by multiple activities. After all, our brains tend to thrive on novelty and distracting stimulation from our environment. We know that constantly scanning the environment for stimulation and interesting details is easier than trying to maintain focused attention on a difficult task.
Think about how easy it is to surf the internet! It might not have any real meaning to us, but it is novel and captures our attention. Given that many students struggle with maintaining focused attention, particularly when reading textbooks, it can be anticipated that they will look for stimulation, whether or not it is relevant to their learning. “Digital multitasking,” which is the tendency to move between and among electronic and digital devices, is especially popular among students and can consume large amounts of their attention and time.
Focused Attention vs Distractions
“Sustained distraction” is what causes problems when we want to learn. If information is important or interesting to us, we pay attention to it longer than when we determine it to be unimportant or uninteresting. When our attention is disrupted, then the processes of integrating and retaining the information are also disrupted. The more complex the task and the more attention that is required to accomplish it, then the greater the negative impact of multitasking.
Our focus and our attention have limited capacities. Even though we can pay partial attention to more than one thing at a time, the number of things actually depends on how much thought is needed. Ormrod (2011) noted, “Attention’s limited capacity means that we must be quite selective about the information we focus on, and we must ignore a lot of the information we receive “(p. 55). Shallow processing of information might be accomplished during multitasking, but shallow processing more readily fades from memory. Deep processing, as needed during thinking, problem solving, and learning is less likely to fade or be lost because it requires more sustained attention and increased neurologic activity.
What have we learned?
Constant use of technology disrupts or interferes with our ability to sustain attention, which is the foundation of thought. Attention is needed not only to learn, but to understand the world in which we live. A challenge for students is to maintain focus and concentration. It is only when we pay attention to information that we can connect it with what we already know, make it personally meaningful, and store it in memory.
Do we want just to be able to do more, faster, or do we want to teach students to think independently, to think deeply, to make connections, and to apply what they know? To store and retrieve information requires a desire and effort to focus and to learn. Multitasking interferes with these. What we can effectively multitask are activities that we have practiced to the point that they are automatic and take little or no conscious thought.
We remember what we pay the most attention to. Given that, we have a great deal of control over what we select to pay attention to. Perhaps that, alone, is the key to effective multitasking. Students must focus when it matters, sustain thought, work efficiently, and then reward themselves with the multiple modes of technological stimulation that they find so appealing. We know what is required for deep and lasting learning to occur. We also know that multitasking is not compatible with it. Turn off the digital media distractions when learning is a goal. Focus when it matters most.
For more information on how to study and learn effectively contact the Nittany Success Center.
Delbridge, K. A. (2001). Individual Differences in Multi-Tasking Ability: Exploring A Nomological Network; Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, University of Michigan.
Ormrod, J. (2011). Our Minds, Our Memories. Pearson Education, Boston.
Stone, L. (2007). Continuous Partial Attention. Version 33. http:continuouspartialattention.jot.com