College instructors are under increasing pressure to capture the attention of students during class, competing with the distractibility of laptops and mobile devices. Many students believe they can multitask – pay attention in class while surfing the Internet, sending a message, or checking the status of something online. Faculty members themselves are often tempted by these same distractions in meetings and at conferences. However multitasking is not only a very inefficient process, as a concept, it is a myth.
- When we multitask, we are not actually doing two things at once. Instead, we are shifting our attention from one thing to another, losing processing time and effort with each shift. Studies indicate that when multitasking, we make up to 4 times more errors and it can take up to 50% longer to accomplish a task. Students who do not use their mobile phones in class can score a grade and a half higher than those who are distracted by their phones. Dave Crenshaw uses the term “switchtasking” to articulate what is really going on.
- The ability to multitask depends on the tasks we are doing. Some activities become automatic with sufficient practice. Others require deliberate attention. It may be possible to have a conversation with someone while walking across campus, but it is nearly impossible to have that same conversation while reading a book. When activities use similar cognitive processes, such as reading, talking, listening, and writing, they cannot be done simultaneously.
Multitasking is not only a very inefficient process, as a concept, it is a myth.
The good news is that we have tremendous capacity for focusing our attention exclusively on what we want and need to see or hear. The bad news is that our capacity for attention is limited. We often have a roughly 10 minute capacity before something needs to happen to regain our attention.
What to do about multitasking in class? Students often don’t understand the limits of their attention or the realities of multitasking and might need guidance using their attention effectively.
Strategies for working with students
- Inform your students about the limitations of multitasking. Share some of the many studies showing negative impacts of multitasking.
- Ask your students to explore their own multitasking limits and create a plan for themselves to stay present and focused in class and while studying.
- Visit our suggestions about managing laptops and mobile devices in class or view these tips for regaining attention in class.
- Make the most out of class time. Focus on teaching strategies that engage students actively in learning to limit their perceived need to switch to another task.