Reaction To My Article About Multitasking And Learning

I’ve been very gratified by the reaction to my article (published in Slate, MindShift, and the Hechinger Report, as well as on my own blog) about how media multitasking affects learning. I’ve heard from hundreds of readers—including entire high school classes!—about what they think about this phenomenon and how it plays out in their own lives. I thought I would share some of these comments, both positive and negative, and invite you to respond to the responses.—Annie

Cameron: I see this in class all the time: students on their phone or Facebook. It’s not a myth that this is a serious issue in the classroom, but here’s my take on it. If the teacher isn’t engaging the student, why would they ever want to put away their phone, which has a plethora of information on it? It’s a serious problem in education nowadays that teachers aren’t using technology effectively. They end up letting it become the distraction instead of the solution.

Kerron: I think we need to help learners clearly make the distinction between complex tasks and simple ones. Multitasking is OK for simple tasks but for complex ones, full concentration is required.

Jonathan: Fascinating article, and I don’t think the results describe just younger learners. Even with the discipline I’ve been trying to develop as an older student taking several online classes, I still find myself jumping from thing to thing unless I put extra special effort into staying on task.  In fact, I was not able to get through reading this article without switching over to something else at least once.

Jennifer: I have a 17 year old daughter who is a junior in high school.  She has always made excellent grades and continues to do so.  Her study habits have always been pretty good. However, she does love that cell phone.  It is obvious she can hardly put it down. Recently she had several very important exams. I found out after the fact that she gave her cell phone to her brother and told him to hide it and to not give it to her under any circumstances. A few hours later she emerged and was quite surprised at how productive she was without the distraction of her cell phone.

Chris: Could it be that this is just a case of disengagement standing out more because it is wearing new clothing? Although I agree with the negative effects of impulsive multitasking, I am curious as to whether we are just seizing on student disengagement when it expresses itself through different behavior. Even before smart phones, iPods, internet and social media, if you were to tell a class to sit down and “study something important” I find it hard to believe that you wouldn’t find similar levels of off-task behavior.

Victoria: Sounds about right. I’m about to start graduate school. All throughout undergrad, while attempting to complete assignments, I would check Facebook or email furiously and compulsively (as if anything had changed in the past five minutes . . . at 2am). I think a big instigator is the smart phone. I never had this problem during class in undergrad, because I didn’t have one, but now I can barely make it through a 30-minute sitcom without checking it. Even while reading this article, I watched the video on the sidebar and clicked on a couple of articles to read after this.
I have a problem.
I’m scared.
Help me.

Rose: In any given school year, I remember a chunk of homework for which I actually needed quiet to focus and learn. I also remember a good chunk of homework that was the equivalent of folding laundry, and the goal was to stay awake through it. So I guess my question is, do the students know when to switch from laundry-folding homework to laser-beam focus homework?

Sylvie: The word “multitasking” suggests effectively doing more than one thing at a time. We need a different word. How about “multifailing”?

Peter: It’s impossible to get kids to turn their phones off and resist checking them during class. And when the SATs come around and the proctors collect students’ phones before the exams,  you can almost see them panicking, worried about not being able to check them. The subconscious hand-touches to their pockets as they feel “phantom buzzing” is quite funny.

Cool Mule: I thought the policy in most schools was to impound phones being used in class until the parents came to claim them. I know that’s a major pain for teachers and parents alike, but it’s the only real solution.

Dr. Opposum: Impounding phones is the rule in theory, but students can and do protest, get into screaming matches, and have to be forced by resource officers to give up the phone. A lot of teachers just stop going through the bother. I speak from experience here.
I would like schools to just put in technology that would block cell phone reception, but that is apparently illegal.

Zhi: It’s not like students not paying attention in class is a new thing. They get a few bad grades and they figure it out. They learn what classes they can get away with it because the lecture is far less helpful than taking all of 5 minutes to read the handouts later. What they need to be measuring is overall achievement in the class, not whether they’re paying attention to a certain 5 minute droning-on period. If they’re coping, then fine, good, it’s not a problem. If not, then you can have a chat.

Virginia: I’ve always found that music of any kind was a good way to shut up the part of my brain that craved distractions from my work. If I didn’t have music to entertain that part of my brain, it would quickly drive me to seek other stimulation in the form of Facebook, social interaction, food, other websites, etc.
Personally, I figured it was just my ADD requiring that “extra” stimulation. But perhaps it’s a generational thing, to expect so much stimulation at once. And no, I don’t consciously pay attention to the music at all—it just keeps the other distractions out.

Thoth:  Unless you are a teacher at the college level, you can’t comprehend the severity of this problem. The ability to focus on what is going on in a classroom becomes slimmer and less apparent with every passing semester.

Petunia: The only way I got through college was to head to the study rooms that have no visual stimulation or people to distract me, throw my silenced phone in my bag and resolve to keep an iron will that would stop me from looking at it and responding to texts or browsing the internet. It can be so hard to disengage from the outside world when you need to be completely involved in your study materials.

Josh: Unfortunately, you’ll only learn what you WANT to learn, not what you NEED to learn. Not that freelance study is bad in your free-ime, it’s just that most people (not just kids) need to understand that there’s a time for play, and a time for work. The mixing of the two is what causes problems.

Princess Toadstool: I used to try to media-multitask in high school and college. I got my best work done after midnight, when everyone else was in bed so they couldn’t instant message me (I’m old!) or distract me with idle conversations, their music, or whatever disruptive nonsense goes on in houses and dorms.

I’ll post another batch later today. What do you think of these?

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