Multitasking increasingly disrupts learning
Listen to this article
The lead author of an interesting new study remembers the incident well.
About two years ago on campus, he encountered a student entering data into a spreadsheet using a desktop computer. Next to the desktop computer, the student had a laptop computer open with Netflix streaming. Beside the laptop was the student's smartphone, which the student was listening to through a pair of wired headphones. Being curious about the simultaneous use of three screens, he asked the student what she was listening to on the headphones.
"Oh, that's my online biology course," the student replied to his complete amazement.
This phenomenon of multitasking across three or four internet-connected devices simultaneously is increasingly common. The researchers behind this study were curious to know how often this happens during online as opposed to face-to-face education with a teacher physically present.
"This question is important to ask because an abundance of research demonstrates that multitasking during educational activities significantly reduces learning," the lead researcher said.
The team surveyed 296 college students. Each student surveyed had recently completed an online, for-credit college course and a traditional face-to-face college course. The survey asked students how often they participated in common multitasking behaviors during their previously taken online courses as well as their previous face-to-face courses. These behaviors included texting, using social networking apps, emailing, off-task internet surfing, talking, doodling and other distracting behaviors. The survey also measured students' preference for multitasking and their belief in their ability to self-regulate their behavior.
Results of the study revealed that students' multitasking behavior is significantly greater in online courses compared to face-to-face courses. Additionally, in online courses, the students who prefer to multitask do indeed multitask more than students with less of a preference for multitasking; however, in face-to-face courses, the students who prefer to multitask do not multitask more frequently than students with less of a preference for multitasking.
What the researchers say: "This is likely because in face-to-face courses, a physically present teacher and the presence of conscientious students help to enforce classroom policies and behavioral norms against multitasking," said the lead author.
Finally, students who were confident in their ability to self-regulate their behavior multitasked less in face-to-face courses when compared to students who were not so confident. However, in online courses, even those students who believe they are good at self-regulation could not resist multitasking. Indeed, they multitasked at a similar frequency to other students.
"This suggests that how we teach students to self-regulate for learning applies well to traditional face-to-face courses, but perhaps it does not apply well to online learning," the researchers said. "Because multitasking during educational activities has a negative impact on learning, it is important to develop methods for reducing this academically disadvantageous behavior, particularly in the increasingly common online learning environment."
The researchers say that students can learn to be more singularly focused and to minimize multitasking.
"For example, during online learning and any other educational activity, put all distractions away, including smartphones and tablets," the co-author said. "This should become habit. This can even be practiced during leisure. For example, when watching a favorite TV show or sporting event, focus on the show and don't get distracted by texting friends and posting to social media."
For students struggling with multitasking in required online courses, the researchers suggested that students try taking the course on a computer in a quiet part of the library where there are already norms in place which discourage many distracting behaviors.
So, what? What’s true of online learning in college or school is also true of the workplace. Too much L&D has been pushed into online or computer-based activity. As another study published this week makes clear social learning—where people learn together and in the presence of an instructor is far more powerful and enduring.
Multitasking is a sign of addiction—an inability to get enough of the reward neurochemical dopamine uptaken by the brain from functional means. Like all addictions it is also a sign of depression and a slew of recent studies have shown that over 40% of college and senior school students and up to 30% of all employees suffer from a serious mood disorder.
Join the discussion
More from this issue of TR
You might be interested inBack to Today's Research
Black lives don't matter, even at birth
Black women have the highest prevalence of low birthweight babies compared to other racial and ethnic groups. Black immigrants typically have much better outcomes than their U.S.-born counterparts however this substantial “birthweight advantage” is lost within a single generation.
Can social media lead to labor market discrimination?
A new Journal of Economics & Management Strategy study investigates whether social media may be used as a source of information for recruiters to discriminate against job applicants.
Join our tribe
Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.