To Multitask or Not, That is the Question!

I was in a classroom recently where students were using laptops, doing an activity that required a relatively low level of intellectual engagement.  They were typing up essays they had written earlier in the week so they could enter them in their online blog site.  All the students had headphones on and were listening to music via the internet simultaneously.  It got me to thinking–is multitasking like this causing students to be less effective at their primary task?  A conversation I had with my older son many years earlier comes to mind.  He purported that he worked better at homework when plugged into music rather than working in a totally quiet environment.  So my question I’ve been turning over in my head has evolved to, “How does multitasking with various media, not just music, impact studying and learning?”

This topic has taken me on a fascinating internet path to research studies, survey reports, and National Public Radio stories on multitasking and media.   And yes, even to a recent editorial by a conservative columnist who I seldom see eye to eye with (except maybe on this subject!)

Since 1999, The Kaiser Foundation has been studying how teens ages 8-18 use media–everything from TV to cell phones to computers and video games–by having a large sampling of teens maintain a media diary for a week.  The results are fascinating, in part because comparisons can be made of changes in teen media use over the past 10 years. For instance in the most recent study, teen use of media has gone up 1.5 hours per day, to a whopping 7.5 hours –attributed in large part to the proliferation of smart phones and iPods. (Generation M2–Media in the lives of 8-18 year olds, January, 2010).  However, these figures may be misleading, because teens often are multitasking, which tends to inflate what is reported.    In fact, in the 2005 Kaiser report, students reported that 25% of the time they were using one type of media, they were also using another media as well! Kaiser 2005 Report: Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year olds

So back to school and homework.   The 2005 Kaiser report states, “Just under one-third (30%) of young people say they either talk on the phone, instant message, watch TV, listen to music, or surf the Web for fun “most of the time” they’re doing homework.”  Can teens possibly be learning with all this distracting media going on around them?  According to a March 3, 2007 NPR story by Lynn Neary on “How Multitasking Affects Learning,” the human brain becomes less efficient at processing information when switching between multiple activities.   According to the scientist Neary interviewed, when multitasking the brain functions in an area that fosters less deep knowledge building.  Consequently, if students are trying to learn new things, it is better for them not to divide their attention.  Does this mean that for the students I mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry, listening to music probably isn’t going to be a problem because they weren’t engaged in new learning?

Neary’s researcher points out that he was only interested in studying competing tasks that require a comparable level of concentration–a level of concentration that music listening probably doesn’t require.  In fact, some studies have indicated that background music may actually increase a person’s ability to concentrate because the music blocks other distractions that might diffuse a learner’s focus.

If I have learned anything in writing this blog, it’s that there is a lot of interest in this question of multitasking and learning.  As my district explores 1-to-1 computing, I am intrigued by something else I read in the 2005 Kaiser report, ” When doing homework on the computer is their primary activity, students are usually doing something else at the same time (65% of the time). In fact, half (50%) of all the time spent doing homework on the computer as their primary activity is also spent using another media, such as listening to music, instant messaging, or watching TV.”  Listening to music may not be a problem, but instant messaging or watching TV?

All I know is, I haven’t been able to write this blog and simultaneously watch this afternoon’s NCAA tournament game, Villanova vs St. Mary.  This old brain just can’t do all that switching back and forth and still write a coherent sentence!

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