May 28th, 2009

Three Multitasking Myths


Our students seem to be masters at multitasking—they regularly do more than one thing at once, or break from one task to work on another and then move on to a third. Even those of us not so adept at managing more than one task at once can “walk and chew gum,” which makes us all multitaskers to some degree. But our students combine so many disparate tasks: biology book open on their knees, they text a friend while listening to rap in the background. Many of them tell us they can’t study when everything is quiet.

Charles J. Abate uses recent neurophysiological experiments to refute the “presumed” efficacy of multitasking. He tackles three beliefs about multitasking that he calls myths.

Multitasking saves time—A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology documents that people who multitask are less efficient than people who focus on one task at a time. The stop-and-go process means the brain has to remember where we stopped, what we already had done, and what needs to be done next. Brains are less efficient than mircoprocessors when it comes to storing information. And the more complex the task, the more time it takes the brain to reorient.

Multitasked learning is as good as single-task learning—Again based on research findings, multitasking forces the brain to rely on habitual or procedural learning, the kind of learning that happens almost automatically or with little conscious awareness. Most of what students are learning in college is conceptual. If that learning is to last and the knowledge to be applicable, students need to employ deep-learning strategies. They need to attend and focus on the learning.

Multitasking is the forte of the young—Not according to one study where 18- to 21-year-olds and 35- to 39-year-olds translated images into numbers, using a simple code. Without any interruption the younger group performed the task about 10 percent faster than the older group. But when both groups were interrupted by a phone call, instant message or cell phone text message, there was no difference in speed or accuracy between the two age cohorts.

Abate concludes that the consequences of tolerating multitasking behaviors “is an education that is fundamentally superficial, short-term-memory-based, and limited in its adaptability to new circumstances.” (p. 13)

Abate, C. J. (2008). You say multitasking like it’s a good thing. Thought and Action, Fall, 7-13.