Research on the Effects of Multitasking

I finally got around to reading the recently published research paper “Cognitive control in media multitaskers” written by Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass and Anthony D. Wagner. In it they discuss the results of a comprehensive study comparing students who are heavy media multitaskers (HMMs) to those who do far less media multitasking (LMMs).

Many of my students claim that they do so much multitasking that it doesn’t really affect their work. They insist that they can listen to music, text their friends, and watch a YouTube video, all while trying to successfully complete an assignment. My gut instinct and day-to-day observations in the classroom say otherwise. Common sense tells me that students who focus on a given task are more likely to complete it sooner and with less difficulty. Fewer distractions correspond to better performance. It turns out that the study actually proved my assumptions and observations. HMMs are more easily distracted, have a harder time filtering out irrelevant information, and are more likely to start unrelated tasks. Surprisingly the study also showed that HMMs take longer to switch between tasks than LMMs.

It also surprised me to learn that HMMs tend to pay attention to all the information and/or tasks presented to them instead of choosing (or being able) to focus in on just one. They also seem to treat all the information and/or tasks with the same level of importance.

What surprised me most about the results of this study was that these effects of heavy media multitasking present themselves even when the student is not multitasking. It seems that the brain of an HMM may actually process things differently than that of an LMM.

This has serious implications for teaching and learning. As educators these days we don’t have much control over how much media multitasking our students do. We will have these students in our classrooms and we share the responsibility for their success. Somehow we have to find ways to help the HMMs filter, prioritize, focus, and find meaning.


About N. Nelson

A college professor with more than 30 years of teaching experience, I am constantly exploring how the current educational paradigm can be adapted to better meet the needs of today’s learners, while still reaching the mandate placed on us by the community and employers to prepare these students for life and careers beyond the college. I enjoy sharing my teaching experiences and expertise through Professional Development Workshops on topics such as Project-Based Learning, Flipping your Classroom, Impacting Student Success, Engaging Large Classes, and Stretching your Teaching Comfort Zone. I am also willing to share my experiences and expertise on the processes required to meet the updated CEAB engineering accreditation requirements.
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