Multitasking: What a professor knows that students don’t
Multitasking: Students who've grown up with digital technologies often consider themselves masters of the art. But research shows that a distracted mind incurs "switching costs." Colleges should add multitasking to the responsible drinking and safe sex courses required of incoming students.
A few weeks ago, I noticed that a student was surfing the web during my class. So I asked her to come to my office, where she told me – with admirable boldness – that my efforts to police such behavior were wrong-headed. She had grown up with digital technologies, she said, and she had taught herself to “multitask” efficiently. Who was I to presume otherwise?Skip to next paragraph
Jonathan Zimmerman is professor of education and history at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," frequently writes commentaries for major national newspapers, and has a regular spot on WHYY, National Public Radio's Philadelphia affiliate, discussing contemporary news events in historical perspective. He and his wife, a pediatrician, have two daughters – one in college and the other a high school senior.
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“Google ‘Clifford Nass,’ ” I replied. “Just not in class.”
Nass, who died last week, was the great slayer of the modern multitasking dragon. A professor of communications at Stanford University, Nass showed that people who did several things at once did all of them worse that those who focused on one thing at a time.
And the more we multitask, he found, the worse we get at multitasking itself. In most human endeavors, practicing an activity makes you better at it. Not so with multitasking: Veteran multitaskers are actually less efficient than people who just started doing it.
Nobody is really sure why. But it seems that multitasking places “switching costs” on the brain: Every time you change activities, you lose time while adjusting to the new task. And doing that over and over again exacts an even greater mental toll.
But here’s the sad irony: We think we’re doing everything really well, even when we’re not. My student honestly believed that she could learn as much in my class while web-surfing as she could without it. It just turns out that she’s wrong.
Ditto for homework, that great bane of American student life: the more digital interruptions that you allow yourself, the worse you do. Indeed, you’re often not studying at all. In a recent experiment observing people doing homework, psychologists found that students only devoted two-thirds of their “homework time” to homework; the rest was spent on Facebook and other distractions.
Predictably, multitaskers take longer to complete their homework and make more mistakes doing it. They also remember less of it later on. And, lo and behold, students who Facebook while doing schoolwork have lower grade-point averages than those who don’t.
So do students who text and Facebook during class, as researchers at Harvard recently showed. But most of them keep doing it, anyway. Eighty percent of college students admit that they text in class. And in a recent study of law school students, 58 percent of second- and third-year students who brought laptops to class used them for “non-class purposes” for over half the time.