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Is Multi-Tasking Killing a Generation of Learners?


We would all like to think we’re good at multi-tasking and able to pay equal attention to several things at the same time. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. We’ve already written about why multi-tasking is a myth, with research suggesting that it can lead to more frequent errors, increase stress, reduce productivity and reduce cognitive ability.

However, some recent research suggests multi-tasking harms reading in particular, which is bad news for students who think they can learn and keep an eye on their phone or watch TV at the same time…

Book Concentration Training Student Workshop

What the research says

The general consensus across the research suggest that multi-tasking had a negative effect on reading in three ways:

  1. Reading Comprehension

Many studies suggest that multi-tasking results in lower levels of reading comprehension. This study, which used videos as distraction, and this study, which used a television, found similar results:

  • Those who read with distractions present had lower comprehension scores than those who read in silence.
  • Interestingly, in both studies, participants who were told not to pay attention to the distractions still scored lower in comprehension tests.
  1. Reading Time

Research also suggests that multi-tasking results in longer reading times. One study found that those who received and responded to texts while reading a textbook took longer to read than those who did not.

A similar study suggests that when students had internet access and were allowed to use their phone, they took longer to read a passage than those who did not use their phones.

  1. Memory

Another factor that multi-tasking is thought to affect is memory. One study suggests that those who checked social media whilst reading recognised less information from the text later on than those who did not check social media.

In another study, participants who watched videos and read a text recalled less information from the passage they read, whether they paid attention to the videos or not.

So, why is multi-tasking not possible?

For readers to understand a text, they must pay attention to the information they are reading. But since multi-tasking requires one to split their attention between two different tasks, reducing the amount of attentional resources available, it is no surprise that multi-tasking has a negative effect on reading time, comprehension and memory.

How to avoid multi-tasking in your classroom

There are a few ways you can make sure that your students don’t suffer the consequences of multi-tasking…

Remind your students that multi-tasking is a myth

Maybe the most obvious first step: make your students aware that multi-tasking is impossible. This may motivate them to focus on one task at a time.

Explain to them what the research says, and teach them about bad habits that may affect their learning such as watching TV or checking their phone.

Don’t give students two types of information at once

Distractions aren’t always entertainment-related. For example, talking to your students while they are trying to read a handout or presentation slide won’t help them learn.

Giving your students the same information in two different ways at the same time can overload their working memory. And as a result, they may end up not paying enough attention to either. Give your students time to read information before explaining it to them.

Eliminate distractions in the classroom

Distractions in the classroom have the potential to steal student’s attention away from the task at hand.

One of the biggest of these distractions is mobile phones. Research suggests that even the mere presence of mobile phones in the classroom can be enough to distract students from their learning.

Other potential distractions in the classroom include unhelpful classroom displays – read more about this here.

Take frequent breaks

Students may begin to lose focus after prolonged periods of time spent studying. Giving your students frequent breaks can not only help them stay focused for longer but also enhance their learning.

Spacing out learning and taking breaks has been shown to improve memory, as it allows students to forget and re-learn information, consolidating what they have learned even more.

Final Thoughts

Multi-tasking does not work.

It can lead to many negative consequences such as frequent errors, increased stress, reduced productivity, and reduced cognitive ability. Multi-tasking is particularly detrimental to reading, resulting in lower comprehension of the text, longer reading times, and worse memory of the information.

Make sure that you teach your students about the consequences of multi-tasking and encourage them to work on one task at a time, avoid distractions, and take frequent breaks when studying.

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