Media Multitasking and Student Learning

“[Our brains are] not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

— Professor Earl Miller, Neuroscientist at MIT via The Guardian

Over the past few years, research has confirmed what most teachers and parents already suspect: doing homework while texting, watching TV, and checking FaceBook, Instagram, SnapChat, and Twitter can be hazardous to a student’s GPA — and more. In fact, neuroscience research suggests that “digital distraction” leads to cognitive loss (Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain).

Given this research, Victoria Rideout, lead author of a research study by the Kaiser Foundation, argues that it’s not the total amount of screen time we should be worried about, but the overall time students spend “media multitasking” while doing schoolwork. As she notes, “It’s multitasking while learning that has the biggest potential downside.”

Why is media multitasking bad for students? A Slate article on memory and multitasking points to research that documents “a cascade of negative outcomes that occurs when students multitask while doing schoolwork”:

  1. “the assignment takes longer to complete, because of the time spent on distracting activities and because, upon returning to the assignment, the student has to refamiliarize himself with the material”
  2. “the mental fatigue caused by repeatedly dropping and picking up a mental thread leads to more mistakes”
  3. “students’ subsequent memory of what they’re working on will be impaired if their attention is divided”
  4. “when we’re distracted, our brains actually process and store information in different, less useful ways”
  5. “researchers are beginning to demonstrate that media multitasking while learning is negatively associated with students’ grades” (You’ll Never Learn! Students Can’t Resist Multitasking, and it’s Impairing Their Memory” by Annie Murphy Paul).

Beyond grades, David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, worries that “we are raising a generation that is learning more shallowly than young people in the past. The depth of their processing of information is considerably less, because of all the distractions available to them as they learn” (Slate).

HPS wants to share this research with parents to give families some well-researched reasons for asking your children to focus their attention on one thing at a time. The goal should be that students devote quality time to their schoolwork in order to make that learning time count. When students are doing schoolwork make sure, as the Slate article advises, “the cellphones are silent, the video screens are dark, and that every last [browser] window is closed but one” (Slate).

Image credit: “Sea of Apps” by HHS Student Chryssanthi B.

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