September 26th, 2012

Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t.



With easy access to all sorts of technology, students multitask. So do lots of us for that matter. But students are way too convinced that multitasking is a great way to work. They think they can do two or three tasks simultaneously and not compromise the quality of what they produce. Research says that about 5% of us multitask effectively. Proof of the negative effects of multitasking in learning environments is now coming from a variety of studies.

The question is, how do we get students to stop? We can tell them they shouldn’t. We can include policies that aim to prevent it and devote time and energy trying to implement them. I wonder if it isn’t smarter to confront students with the facts. Not admonitions, but concrete evidence that multitasking compromises their efforts to learn. The specifics are persuasive and here are some examples to share with students.

  • In an experiment involving 62 undergraduate students taking a principles of accounting course, half of the cohort was allowed to text during a lecture and half had their phones turned off. After the lecture both groups took the same quiz and the students who did not text scored significantly higher on the quiz.

    Ellis, Y., Daniels, W. and Jauregui, A. (2010). The effect of multitasking on the grade performance of business students. Research in Higher Education Journal, 8

  • This research focused on the use of laptops in a 15-week management information systems class enrolling 97 upper division students. With student consent, researchers used a spyware program that tracked the windows and page names for each software application run during class time. Students were encouraged to run “productive windows”—those that related to course content. Spyware also tracked the number of “distractive windows” students ran, including games, pictures, email, instant messaging and web surfing. Students had these distractive windows open 42% of the class time. Students who tried to listen to the lecture while using these distractive windows had significantly lower scores on homework, projects, quizzes, final exams and final course averages than students who looked at mostly productive windows. Researchers also found that this population under reported the extent of their multitasking.

    Kraushaar, J. M. and Novak, D. C. (2010). Examining the affects of student multitasking with laptops during lecture. Journal of Information Systems Education, 21 (2), 241-251.

  • Students taking a general psychology course were asked to read on a computer a 3,828 word passage. One group used instant messaging before they started reading, another group used instant messaging while they were reading and a third group read without instant messaging. The group that used instant messaging while they read took between 22 and 59% longer to read the passage than students in the other two groups and that was after the time spent instant messaging was subtracted from the reading times.

    Bowman, L. L., Levine, L. E., Waite, B. M. and Dendron, M. (2010). Can students really multitask? An experimental study of instant messaging while reading. Computers & Education, 54, 927-931.

  • A cross-disciplinary cohort of 774 students responded to a survey which documented that the majority of them engaged in classroom multitasking. Their multitasking was significantly related to lower GPA and to an increase in risk behaviors including use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.

    Barak, L. (2012). Multitasking in the university classroom. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6 (2)

  • Students in a general psychology course completed weekly surveys on various aspects of the class. They reported their attendance, and if they used laptops during class for things other than note taking (like checking email, instant messaging, surfing the Web, playing games). They also rated how closely they paid attention to the lectures, how clear they found the lectures and how confident they were that they understood the lecture material. The level of laptop use negatively correlated with how much attention students paid to the lectures, the clarity of the lectures and how well they understood the lecture material. “The level of laptop use was significantly and negatively related to student learning. The more students used their laptops in class, the lower their class performance.” (p. 910)

    Fried, C. B. (2008). In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers and Education, 50 (3), 906-914.

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47 comments on “Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t.

  1. I often point out to students that if you receive an important phonecall during the end of a TV program (admit that this has happened to all of us at one time or another), they will either concentrate on the conversation and miss what happened at the end of the show–really annoying!! Or you concentrate on the ending of the show and just keep saying "ah huh" or "yeah" and risk having the person at the other end getting upset with you because they know you are not listening to them!! Our minds are like a train on a railroad track. You can switch tracks but you cannot be on more than one track at a time.

    • Hi Virginia,
      I work in the resources industry – it is for these exact reasions that we remove all electronic distraction and reading material from our operators at shift start.
      The ramifications for students are obvious, though the effect on productivity and safety in the workplace are huge.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful overview. It reminds me of research done at Stanford a few years back that illustrated how those students who had the greatest confidence in their ability to multitask were actually among the poorest performers when attempting to multitask. But short of banning computers, tablets, and phones from the classroom the challenges of getting students to use technology as a tool for learning rather than a distraction are significant. My take is that it is both a matter of motivation (e.g., learning is more important than socializing) and student success skills (e.g., how to effectively leverage technology improve learning). For too long we have focused almost exclusively on preparing instructors for using technology in courses with little regard to the challenges that students will face (i.e., just because they can use Twitter and Facebook doesn’t mean that they have skills to appropriately use technology to advance their learning). In the future we must provide better guidance for both instructors and students alike on these important issues.

    Corry, M. & Watkins, R. (2007). A Student's Guide to E-learning Success. In Brandon, W. (Ed.) The eLearning Guild's Handbook on e-Learning Strategy. eLearning Guild Press. (link:

    Ophir, E. , Nass, C.I., Wagner, A.D. (2009). Cognitive Control In Media Multitaskers. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, USA 106:15583–15587. (link;

    Watkins, R. and Corry, M. (2010). E-learning Companion: A student's guide to online success (3rd Ed.). New York: Wadsworth/Cengage. (link:…

  3. It is gratifying to see some quantitative data to back up my intuition that, despite what is repeatedly written, the modern generations (X, Y or whatever number or letter is ascribed to them) are no better equipped to multi-task effectively than us old dopes who grew up with rotary dial phones and slide rules.

    I remain conflicted as to how to address the issue of mobile electronics in class – truly a blessing and a curse: excuse me while I check my email. Being as guilty as the next person of texting in class, I am reluctant to be strict about it; and anyway, the students pay for the class; they are the "customers;" let them decide. On the other hand it offends my sensibilities to see them completely distracted for hours on end engaged in pointless and unproductive electronic activities. Perhaps a short presentation using these data will be a subtle approach to suggesting a change of behaviour.

    • I agree that the students pay for the class, however, they are in class to learn, not recess. I think it's agreat idea to put the requirements, the do's and don't's in the syllabus. My students' while in my class are there not to decide, they've already done that when they selected the class. they are there to be guided.

    • They aren't customers; they are students and that comes with a responsibility to not take up space in a class that someone else could use more productively, not to mention that they are being subsidized, whether it is a public or a private university. The "students are consumers" approach has done more damage to higher education than most people recognize.

      • Michael:
        Perhaps the irony intended by the "" around customers escaped you. I couldn't agree more with your point of view. Sadly, our "Senior Management Team" thinks otherwise, and demands we attend sessions to improve our "service excellence" (with a smile of course).

        Yet, what am I do to? Pounce every time someone picks up a mobile phone, iPad or laptop?

        I think presenting persuasive data illustrating the consequences would be more effective than simply telling people not to do certain activities.

    • Unfortunately, we faculty are increasingly being "assessed" on our ability to teach based on the test scores of these multi-tasking students. It is frustrating when we cannot control the most important variable in student success, their participation and effort to learn.

  4. …con't, that is not to say they shouldn't think. The schools, I think let students' get away with too much independence and they are not qualified to be yet. I think that's why there is so much isolation, and lack of social skills. Schools, parents, teachers, "institutions" have forced students to be loners, selfish, and multitaskers. I think that is why we have driving and texting. We have allowed it to go that far. It seems that the only discipline that students' receive is when things have gone too far, and it's too late. I say back to basics. Back to old school. Learning is beinig eliminated through funding cuts and dropout rates. "Remember when you were a kid, well part of you still is", and that's why I say back to basics. :( Structure!

    • Why is this the teacher's fault? When we go to take their phone's away they cry to mommy and daddy and we can get sued because it is personal property.

  5. Thank you so much for addressing this topic. I always try to set an example for my students. When I encounter two or more students at a time seeking my attention, asking a question or seeking help. I tell them that I can only deal with one question at a time, and the others will have to wait. I tell them "my computer can multitask, but I can't!" Any student that believes that they can go through life or handle a career using these methods is destined for disappointment! Your article made me decide to plan a lesson for my students on this topic to see if I can convince them that what you had to report is something they need to actively think about.

  6. Good article, but I wonder about some of the research. At least three of the studies mentioned student behaviour during "lectures", well known to be the least engaging delivery method for most students. When I was a university student, we lacked electronic communication devices, but still reacted to the more boring lectures by doodling, daydreaming,reading other texts, passing notes, etc. Would the students be as distractible or score differently if the learning activity was more student-centred and involving (liek small-group discussion, problem-based learning, etc.?

    • During lecture, it seems to me there would be more opportunity for students to devote attention to other tasks. Often during small group discussion or activities that require active student participation/movement, professors walk around to answer questions or there may be a time constraint in which the group work/discussion must be completed; therefore, students might have less opportunity to engage in multitasking. I imagine that the less opportunity a student has to engage in several tasks, the less the results would indicate poorer performance.

  7. In response to some of the comments, and hoping to clarify the negative impact of attempting to multitask (really task switching), we ran a study where we interrupted students randomly during a 20-minute lecture with either 4 or 8 texts. A control group received no texts. Are instructions were serendipitously ambiguous, telling the 185 students, "If you receive a text from us, please respond." First, those who got 4 texts did not do significantly worse than those who did not get a text but the 8-text group suffered (as a group they got a "D" on the test compared to a "C" for both the other groups). The most interesting result is that those students who did not provide a Pavlovian, knee-jerk reaction to our text messages, and instead waited to read and respond, got an "A" on the test. These students were exercising metacognition, whereby they assessed the importance of the lecture material and waited for a lull, or "slack time," during which they felt they could self-distract. The article:

    Rosen, L.D., Lim, F.A,, Carrier, L.M., & Cheever, N.A. (2011). An Empirical Examination of the Educational Impact of Text Message-Induced Task Switching in the Classroom: Educational Implications and Strategies to Enhance Learning. Psicologia Educativa, 17(2), 163-177 and can be found at:

    • It's not at all surprising that students who had already developed a disciplined approach to dealing with impulse (in this case the urge to see and answer a text) were the high scores…the one thing we need is a way to foster both the motivation and adoption of discipline in students. Because that is what it is — self discipline — not really a separate mulit-tasking skill set.

    • Those are interesting results, and it seems far more accurate than the idea that all texting during class results in poor grades.

  8. Great resources and comments, thank you. I think I'll try a combination of (1) reminders to self that designing a class that intentionally includes lots of intentional task switching over the class period (and includes lots of learner-centered activities) will set up an environment less conducive to students' attempts at task switching, and (2) showing my students some of this data…

  9. Yes, there's multiple research questions raised here, with some that beg for further studies. One is student's self-perception of their ability to multitask vs. the reality (which the studies Mary Ellen cited reveal pretty clearly). But maybe a bigger question is what classroom approaches/strategies minimize their urge to multitask, unless it really is hardwired into ther little brains… not much evidence of the latter, though, from what I've read.

  10. Although I agree with the premise of these studies, I am concerned that the bulk of these studies focused on student multi-tasking during LECTURES! I firmly believe that lecture is tantamount to a non-pharmacological sleep aid and should go the way of the dinosaur. If we actively engage our students in the classroom, perhaps multi-tasking would not be an issue. I admit that I cannot sit through a lengthy meeting or conference just "listening"–this is not how the human mind is constructed–so can we/should we really expect our students to do this?! It is time to resurrect the concepts of great educational philosophers like Dewey and Freire—we should stop trying to "dump" information into our students and instead invite them to join us as partners in constructing deep learning.

    • I think students (and apparently some professors) need to learn to settle down and focus. Human minds can and should be trained to just listen. I don't see anything wrong with lecturing, as long as it's engaging, and it doesn't have to physically involve students to be engaging. (By the way, I'm not saying that lecturing should be the only teaching technique used.)

    • Although I must agree that lectures are not the most effective way to deliver information in many cases, I must disagree that our human mind is not constructed for listening. Once upon a time, people enjoyed going to lectures, speeches and even sermons from visiting clergy as a form of entertainment. I have heard many fascinating and entertaining lectures from university professors, college instructors, and other experts in their field at conventions and symposiums. Nevertheless, listening for many adults today seems a task beyond their ken. Perhaps, the lack of listening abilities is due more to our increasing self-centeredness. For instance, when I first began teaching some thirty years ago, I could give a whole class instructions. Now, I must give those instructions individually to each student (either orally or in written form – both is best). Perhaps the media we use has changed our brains' abilities over time.

  11. I have no doubt that when beings fail to focus their successes diminish rapidly. However, with the exception of the first study (which might have other possible problems), the research that is cited has one common fairly serious flaw. It is the old causal order problem, which can be understood by contemplating this question: Are the students who engage in more "multi-tasking" doing poorly because they are "multi-tasking", or are the pre-existing poorer students more likely to goof off (multi-task) during class than the more serious better students? In other words, what portion of the variance is being explained by the distracting behavior (multi-tasking) and what portion is being explained by the background of the student that makes her/him more likely to "multi-task" (poor student who goofs off in class)? Perhaps these variables were measured and controlled in the analysis. If they were, please ignore this comment. Thank you.

  12. Another approach to this whole-distracted-by electronics thing is to accommodate student addiction to the darned things by working in some activities that use them. Tell them there will be devices-off parts of a class, where they need to focus on what's being said/shown, and "devices on" one where they use their device to instantly research something, answer a question, find a resource or vote using an app that mimics a clicker, so survey results can be displayed on the projection screen. We might as well work with them as against them, right?

  13. Great article, and some very insightful posts by readers. I used the "common courtesy – common sense" approach in my classes. I'll let my students know that it's ok to accept personal cellphone calls, or "deal with life" when necessary, BUT…take it outside the classroom quietly and discretely. Use the vibrate mode in class and keep the interruption to a minimum. AND I need to model the same behavior. AND include activities that require the use of laptops, tablets, and mobile devices, such as online polling, article research, etc. Engage the students at the beginning of the semester by discussing, THEN drawing up a mutually agreed upon "code of conduct" that includes the use of electronic devices in my classes. Engagement, buy-in, role-modelling and consistent implementation. It usually works. So far so good. :-)

  14. I worry about the obstacles with trying to convince mulittasking students that what they perceive to be their "best" performance really might not be their best. They are so used to multitasking that they really don't have any concept of what they could do if they didn't. Trying to convince students to give not multitasking a try could even be counterproductive at first since they are so used to multitasking it could be anxiety provoking at first. Many of these kids have panic type symptoms when they leave home and realize they left their phones. In most cases, a return trip home to get the item would be a given. Many of them sleep with their phones next to them at night so they don't "miss out" on anything. Every semester, I take about 15 mins out of my class to show part of a PBS Digital Nation episde with Rachel Dretzin. Dr. C. Nass at Stanford has done some interesting studies with multitaskers. His findings are consistent with what was found in this article. Despite showing students the video, they continue to multitask. Perhaps it is the belief that they might be in that 5% of effective multitaskers that prevents them from trying to see what they can are capable of by not multitasking.

  15. Numbers generally appear more authoritative and less whiny than my pathetic attempts to cajole, implore and beg students to put aside their cell phones and log out of facebook. So, thank you for sharing these sources! Sharing them with students is a fantastic idea.

  16. ALthough I agree on the topic of mulitasking that it distracts a student from learning the full view of a subject, from reading this article they mainly tested the multitasking theory in class/lecture. From experience I do multitask in class and I find that I learn more while not multitasking in a class. However I also multitask outside of the classroom and it works well fo me. My point is I agree with the article about multitasking in a classroom while learning because it takes the students attention off of the topic being discussed therefore we miss things that could be vital to know. However I do believe multitasking outside of a classroom works for some people if they like to stay busy. I believe that a study should be done for school work/homework outside of a classroom to see how well students handle that because students in class do not handle multitasking very well because they are focused on something other than the subject.

  17. While I don't disagree with these results or that these results do implicate something that's true (I can agree that sometimes multitasking doesn't work), I don't believe these studies were incredibly thorough, at least according to their summaries. A class size of 62 students is not a sufficiently large sample size. That's about the size of one class, and you're trying to apply that across the board? Also, the 22 to 59% difference in reading pace doesn't sound entirely accurate either. People read at different paces, which can easily account for the pace difference between the two groups. I believe that there are strong correlations between academic performance and technological multitasking, but I don't believe there is enough to substantiate this claim.

  18. Based on my personal experience, I agree with the writer of this post. There are quite a number of distraction competing for our attention. This is one area I'm working on.

  19. I found the article very interesting and found a lot of validity in what was presented, but some of the research seems too limited in focus. There seems to be a lack of or scattered deterministic qualities about what provides value, (time, comprehension, engagement). Could there be other variable factors that were not considered that could lead to better results in the control group vs the multi-tasking group? The poster, Undergraduate called out different reading paces.

    First, why is there no discussion about the 5% of people who have been identified as being able to multitask to continue to multi-task.
    My take away from the article was since 95% cannot multitask, how do educators stop everyone from multitasking. Could there be harm to those who multi-task to be forced to stop? Is there any research that would show improvements for proficient multi-taskers to stop?

    Second, the metrics used see to make assumptions about what is important, for example time.
    One segment of the various tasks, discussions IM while reading 3,828 word passage. One task which is relevant to the course, while IM'ing which may not. One task provides value and the other does not. One purpose of multitasking can be to accomplish simultaneous achievements.

    Say we changed the scenario to students need to read a 3,828 word passage and also write a single page summary on the passage. If the student were to read the passage, then go and write the summary. If time is the factor, then a student may be able to read and take notes for their summary. By multi-tasking, the time duration may be quicker than someone reading the summary then skimming the passage for notes for the paper (or have better quality if someone does not skim the passage and writes only from memory) . There is also an argument in this purpose scenario that symbiotic tasks can allow the students to have better retention of the material in the passage if they are required to process the information and write the details.

    The argument the paper seems to state is that since it takes longer to read the passage while multi-tasking, the quality is lessened while completely ignoring the potential of the value of time and quality of the other task.

    This could also be translated into students taking notes in lectures.

    Since this article generally addresses students multi-tasking and uses data that only focused on segments of the tasks providing value, and purpose next step should be limited to multi-tasking in the scope to only value added tasks when combining value and non-value tasks.

  20. It is interesting that people are focusing on the multi tasking and the short term ramifications of pursuing social media whilst engaging in a pursuit that takes their minds away from the task. There is much information that even if they are present physically the mere fact that they have their device on their person leads them to distraction, resulting in "scattered thinking" and a lack of longer term understanding of what they are doing.
    I love the John Hattie quote "by the age of 8 all students have learn't how to pretend to pay attention!", now there is even more devices that allow us to justify this lack of attention. My problem as a high school teacher is that in my subject of Chemistry there is no such thing as "listen and then forget". The theory is complex, requires frequent scaffolding of information and a0plication to new situations, so concentration at point of sale is paramount.
    I employ many different strategies but always keep in mind that my students basic concentration span is their age + 2 minutes and make sure I stop them and then give their brains time to absorb what they have been doing before progressing.
    Social media will not go away and technology always marches forward but we all need to understand that the true impact in any classroom is the teacher, they are the ones that create the culture of excellence and push the students to higher levels of achievement.
    We all need to find a way to get students to turn off all their "toys"when it is time for the brain to get involved in the true life skill we call "learning".

  21. Article is worth reading and i think every students should read this great piece of information. I am going to make my daughter read this.

  22. Harga Label Baju – Yes, there's different exploration inquiries raised here, with some that ask for further studies. One is understudy's self-view of their capacity to multitask versus the truth (which the studies Mary Ellen refered to uncover pretty obviously). Yet, perhaps a greater inquiry is the thing that classroom approaches/systems minimize their inclination to multitask, unless it truly is hardwired into ther little brains… very little proof of the recent, however, from what I've perused.

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  26. But maybe a bigger question is what classroom approaches/strategies minimize their urge to multitask, unless it really is hardwired into ther little brains… not much evidence of the latter, though, from what I've read. thank you for sharing

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