September 10, 2013

The Multitasking Myth: Technology Use and Instructional Outcomes

By Brent Reed, Pharm.D., BCPS, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

As you read this blog, how many technologies are competing for your attention? Perhaps your phone is sitting nearby, buzzing intermittently with the arrival of a new text message. Or a popup has just alerted you to the 17 new emails anxiously awaiting you in your email inbox.  Indeed, the neverending competition for our attention has become almost ubiquitous.  You can set “push” notifications for everything from up-to-the-minute scores of your favorite football team to the dessert photos your friend just posted to Instagram. The ability to manage these interruptions—often termed media multitasking—is the only way to survive in an increasingly technologically advanced society.   Or is it?  A growing body of evidence now suggests that multitasking is detrimental in many ways.  Some researchers contend that humans are incapable of performing multiple cognitive tasks at one time.  What we perceive as multitasking is essentially rapid “task switching.”1

For many young adults, especially those in the millennial generation, media multitasking is a way of life.  In a survey of undergraduate students published in 2010, Smith, et al. found that 4 out of every 5 owned a laptop computer and nearly two-thirds owned a mobile device capable of accessing the Internet.2 The overwhelming majority of young adults consider themselves excellent multitaskers, but studies indicate that individuals who proclaim themselves to be the most capable are actually the worst at multitasking.3  So too are those who most frequently multitask.4  Nevertheless, the growing prevalence of technologies that enable media multitasking has had a significant impact in a variety of areas of our lives.   The classroom and other learning environments are no exceptions.

Impact of Multitasking on Cognitive Processing
Numerous studies have investigated the impact of multitasking on cognitive performance, with many of them being published long before the widespread use of mobile devices. Although investigations date back to the mid-20th century, several studies in the 1990s demonstrated that divided attention impairs the process of encoding information, thereby reducing cognitive performance and the quality of information stored.5  In contrast, divided attention has only minimal impact on memory retrieval, although it comes at a significant cost in terms of reaction time and performance on secondary tasks.6,7 In more practical terms, attending to multiple tasks at a time may overload the mind’s cognitive capacity, impairing awareness, decision-making skills, and overall performance. For health care professionals, these consequences are especially dire, as multitasking has been highlighted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) as being detrimental to work performance and posing a risk to patient safety.8–10

Multitasking and Learning
In their cognitive theory of multimedia learning, Meyer et al. describe three assumptions about how the mind processes information: (1) auditory and visual processing occurs via two separate channels, (2) each channel has limited processing capacity, and (3) learning requires considerable cognitive processing.11 They also propose that cognitive demands may be classified as essential processing (required for comprehension of the material to be learned), incidental processing (information unrelated to the material to be learned), and representational holding (auditory or visual representations retained in working memory).  One or more of these demands can overwhelm processing capacity, a phenomenon they term cognitive overload.  The most significant danger to learning is when the incidental processing (e.g., text messaging, browsing Facebook or Pinterest) outstrips the far more taxing capacities required for essential processing and representational holding of educational material.

A number of recent studies have investigated how media multitasking impacts educational outcomes. In a study of nearly 2000 undergraduate students at a public university, over two-thirds of respondents reported text messaging during class, while another one-third reported using Facebook.12 Although the frequency of multitasking during class was negatively correlated with grade point average, this trend was driven primarily by multitasking for social activities (e.g., text messaging, Facebook).  In a smaller but randomized study of undergraduate students (n=38-40), multitasking on a laptop during class was associated with 11% lower test scores (p=0.003).  Worse still, students who were distracted by the multitaskers’ laptops were also negatively impacted, scoring 17% lower on tests (p=0.001).

Implications for Learners
Although technology can enrich the learning experience, the evidence suggests that its use for unrelated tasks can have a detrimental impact on educational outcomes. Since mobile devices and other communication technologies are here to stay (can we possibly imagine a world without them?), learners must develop strategies for their responsible use in instructional settings, such as:
  • Understanding the impact that media multitasking can have on information processing. This is especially important for future health care professionals, as the knowledge and skills obtained in school are required for providing care to patients.
  • Recognizing that the magnitude of its impact is related to both the frequency of use and specific media applications used. Learners should minimize social activities in instructional settings, as these appear to have the most detrimental impact on performance.  Educational activities (e.g., searching the web for a topic presented in class, viewing multimedia related to course material) appear to have minimal to no impact on academic performance.
  • Be aware that media multitasking during class may impair the academic performance of fellow learners.
Implications for Educators
Educators are expected to create environments that cultivate learning, so efforts should be made to minimize the detrimental impact of media multitasking in the classroom.  Although a ban on devices has been implemented by some instructors,14 this is likely to be met with dismay—not to mention abysmal student evaluations.  A less heavy handed approach is perhaps needed.  In addition to making learners aware of how media multitasking can impair learning, the following strategies should be considered:
  • Incorporating technology in a way that engages learners and overcomes the lure of unrelated media multitasking.
  • Providing a diverse mixture of materials and interactive activities, some of which may include media multitasking, such as asking learners to search for online videos that help explain a complex topic.
  • Developing policies for wireless access; a balanced strategy might include designating a period at the beginning of class for downloading notes or presentation slides, responding to emails, or engaging in social media activities, then limiting wireless access during periods of instruction.
  • Creating “zones” for those individuals using laptops and other devices in order to minimize the impact of media multitasking on adjacent learners.
The use of laptops, mobile devices, and other communication technologies have become an integral part of everyday life, but their use in instructional settings appears to have a negative impact on learning outcomes, especially when multitasking is used for social purposes.  However, these challenges provide an opportunity for dialogue between educators and learners, so that a strategy for effectively and responsibly incorporating technology can be developed—one that engages students and improves the learning experience while minimizing its detrimental impact on educational outcomes.

For those who found it challenging to read this entire essay without multitasking…
tl;dr: media multitasking widespread, negatively impacts learning; learners, educators should identify strategies for appropriate use; examples provided.

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